Speaking Candidly about Opioid Dependence and Legal, Safe Alternatives

AP Photo/Richard Vogel

Every ten minutes, an American dies from opioid abuse. In fact, drug overdose is America’s main cause of accidental death. And yet, as journalist Janet Burns points out at Forbes, “the U. S. assigns more favorable legal status to around 50 different opioids than it does to cannabis or psilocybin mushrooms.” Most of those 50 opioids are prescription drugs.

With disarming candor, Burns describes the way a seemingly routine painkiller script led her to full-blown dependence. Going into debt, having to move, buying drugs on the street to ward off withdrawal ─ her experience with prescription painkillers mirrors the experience of the majority of Americans’ who have opioid addiction disorder; four out of five American heroin users started their dependence with prescription medication. Burns uses her experience to make a case for the benefits of legal, accessible medical marijuana to treat the ailments that lead people to opioids. And she show the flaws in America’s war on drugs, which protects the pharmaceutical industry more than American citizens. In her words, “our laws for protecting people form dangerous drugs seem to have far less to do with safety and efficacy than you would hope.”

In the past few years, I’ve also had particular opportunity as a business writer to explore the costs of such policies, and to bring those numbers to light.

I found that cannabis — which currently costs the country billions per year in arrests and incarceration (not counting the cost of lives lost to opioid addiction or other treatable illness), and remains unavailable to millions of patients who need it, including family and friends of mine — stands to deflate the patent-prone pharmaceutical industry by at least $4 billion per year, according to estimates.

I discovered that comparatively cheap programs like syringe exchanges, low- or no-cost medication-assisted treatment and safer injection sites (a.k.a. supervised consumption spaces) have been shown to reduce public disorder, save lives and bring down the cost burden for police and hospitals.

And that the cost of the decades-old drug Naloxone, which reverses overdose, has risen right alongside opioid abuse.

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