President Donald Trump recently spoke out about the national opioid epidemic and discussed his game plan to address it. He said there is a need to “focus on prevention and law enforcement” and touted his “past executive actions to strengthen law enforcement and dismantle criminal cartels.” Why is our president, who once demanded an end to the drug war, now accelerating it by focusing on old tactics and abandoning medical marijuana as an instrument in the opiate recovery process?
More research than ever before has led Americans to understand that cannabis is not only a substance that should not be equated to harder drugs like heroin and cocaine, but it actually has therapeutic benefits and has the potential to treat a variety of conditions. Medical marijuana regulations in various states allow its use for issues including cancer; HIV and AIDS; PTSD; Alzheimer’s disease; Crohn’s disease; seizures and epilepsy; and chronic pain, which was often treated by opiates until the medical community vaguely acknowledged that treating chronic pain with a highly addictive substance was causing serious repercussions on patients.
New Administration, Familiar Rhetoric
Attorney General Jeff Sessions started off at his new post by making damning comments that deceptively conflate recreational and medical use of cannabis and the opiate crisis. With uninformed, generalized statements like “I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana sold at every corner grocery store” and “good people don’t use marijuana,” Sessions shows how out of touch he is with modern research. In a speech on March 15th, Sessions continued to share his outdated views by declaring “I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”
In February, Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered a chilling indication that the federal government will end its relatively mild approach to dealing with states that legalized cannabis recreationally, but has only had enough tenacity thus far to say that these states will “see greater enforcement.”
These objections to cannabis from Spicer and Sessions have left Americans wondering if the Trump administration will actually use its federal muscle on states that have legalized marijuana in some form. Such a crackdown would mean that the feds would be tackling over half the states in our country- a daunting and expensive undertaking indeed, but then again so is the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico, and Trump hasn’t backed off that boondoggle yet.
Casting aside other contentious positions of the Trump administration though, it would be absolutely foolish and draconian for President Trump to renew the criminalization of cannabis while speaking of the dangers of opiate addiction. His recent establishment of a commission to advise Trump on the opioid crisis that includes notorious cannabis foe Chris Christie provides further skepticism that he’s authentic in his dedication to effectively addressing this issue.
Cannabis: A “Gateway” to Reducing Opiate Dependence
While Sessions is animatedly dismayed by the idea of marijuana as part of the solution to our country’s opioid crisis, treatment clinics across the country are gradually exploring cannabis as a solution for opiate dependence. High Sobriety, a rehab clinic in Los Angeles, has flipped the “gateway drug” stereotype by actually including cannabis use as part of a treatment strategy for opiate addiction.
In Massachusetts, opioid addicts are seeing success with medical marijuana as well. Dr. Uma Dhanabalan of Uplifting Health and Wellness told the Boston Herald that “What we are seeing is that, in follow-up visits, patients have decreased and even eliminated their opioids.”
In addition to addiction treatment centers embracing cannabis, a recent study inadvertently found that “hospitalization rates for opioid painkiller dependence and abuse dropped on average 23 percent in states after marijuana was permitted for medicinal purposes.”
Dr. Donald Abrams of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital’s Hematology-Oncology Division has studied the effects of cannabis on pain for over ten years and told TIME last year that “if we could use cannabis, which is less addictive and harmful than opioids, to increase the effectiveness of pain treatment, I think it can make a difference during this epidemic of opioid abuse.”
Additional research is always welcome, especially when it comes to treating the debilitating and life-threatening effects of drug addiction. Critics have said that “swapping” one drug for another substance is preposterous, yet opiate addicts are often given suboxone or methadone, leaving addicts a few potentially missed doses away from withdrawal and relapse. Studies continue to show that cannabis isn’t a substance that should be lumped together with other drugs.
Trump’s Disturbing “Evolving” Views
Has Trump remained allegiant to his position on drugs including cannabis? Not exactly. While it’s been reported more than once, not many are aware that Trump once condemned the government’s approach to dealing with illegal drugs. In 1990, Trump was unmistakably aware of the harmful effects of the drug war and was emphatic about ending it. He referred to the drug war as “a joke” and further said that “You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profit away from those drug czars.”
Fast forward nearly three decades later to the 2016 election season in an era where marijuana has lost most of its cultural stigma: Trump was visibly coy about his overall stance on cannabis during his campaign. Questions about recreational and medical cannabis use were regularly posed to him and his competitors over several months; after a series of fragmented statements that often oddly fused rhetorical self-questioning inside of his responses, it was apparent that he had shifted to hold a negative view of recreational cannabis and struggled to convey that he was supportive of medical:
In June 2015, he said at CPAC that Colorado’s position on marijuana was “bad,” but quickly added “But I think, medical marijuana, 100%” in regards to the question of medical marijuana’s legitimacy.
“Marijuana is such a big thing. I think medical should happen— right? Don’t we agree? I think so. And then I really believe we should leave it up to the states,” he said later on in October of that year.
So Americans know that Trump reluctantly favors medical marijuana and states’ rights, at least for the time being. However, his strategy to solve the opiate crisis doesn’t name cannabis at all, and instead includes the same outmoded promises of past politicians including getting tough on immigration and the border, calling for even more pharmaceuticals to move through the FDA approval process, and court-ordered rehab. These promises have been feebly attempted before with no significant results. He’s also appointed an attorney general who doesn’t even want to hear the word “marijuana” and a spokesman who hints at ending the medical cannabis revolution.
Reversal of Progress?
It’s understandable and not uncommon for views- especially views of public figures and politicians- to change, advance, become more refined, or even deteriorate or become more obscure. However, Trump’s brief but strong words about the drug war have not somehow become inaccurate over the years. Billions more dollars have been spent on this “war” since his statements, countless lives have been destroyed, and scores of research show that cannabis and its advocates do not belong in the frontline of the drug war.
Will the Trump administration ultimately force the country back into the stigmatization and criminalization of cannabis use and resume its horrific consequences? Should we hope that he will not reverse course on yet another policy position? If he indeed enforces such a backtrack, it would be a tragic and remarkably dangerous decision nullifying all of the progress that has been made as well as rejecting the will of millions of voters. We have a president, once vocally opposed to the drug war, who could easily step aside and allow state-by-state implementation of effective and reasonable cannabis policy, and it would be shameful if he were to help orchestrate its destruction.
It’s time for President Trump to distinguish his ambitions from those of Sessions and Spicer, if there is even a clarification by him to be made, More importantly, it is critical for the health of our populace that he show willingness to recognize that cannabis is art of the solution, not part of the problem.
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