Opioid commission stirs controversy over role of marijuana

marijuana leaf
Despite a presidential commission's concerns about the dangers of marijuana use, experts told CNN that the majority of studies show that marijuana use is associated with less opioid use and less opioid-related deaths.

At a time when states are legalizing medical marijuana nearly every election cycle, a presidential commission charged with studying the country’s opioid epidemic has generated controversy with its argument that the push for cannabis legalization could help fuel the drug addiction crisis.

As part of its final report to President Donald Trump, the commission raised concerns about legalization of marijuana, a view that has stirred anger among some experts who say the argument is a throwback to the outdated idea that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to the use of other drugs and possible addiction, according to CNN.

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, chairman of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, warned of the dangers of marijuana in a letter to President Donald Trump that prefaced the group’s report (PDF) of its findings.

“The Commission acknowledges that there is an active movement to promote the use of marijuana as an alternative medication for chronic pain and as a treatment for opioid addiction,” Christie wrote. “Recent research out of the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse found that marijuana use led to a 2½ times greater chance that the marijuana user would become an opioid user and abuser. The Commission found this very disturbing.”

Furthermore, he wrote that there is a lack of sophisticated outcome data on dose, potency and abuse potential for marijuana.

"This mirrors the lack of data in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when opioid prescribing multiplied across healthcare settings and led to the current epidemic of abuse, misuse and addiction," he said. "The Commission urges that the same mistake is not made with the uninformed rush to put another drug legally on the market in the midst of an overdose epidemic.” 

Experts, however, question that thinking and say the focus on marijuana is troubling, CNN reported. They dispute the research study cited by Christie, which was published in September in the American Journal of Psychiatry based on interviews collected over a decade ago.

Chinazo Cunningham, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, told CNN that research shows marijuana use significantly reduces pain and that the majority of studies show that marijuana use is associated with less opioid use and less opioid-related deaths.

Marijuana is illegal under federal law, which rates it as a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin. But 29 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, as well as the District of Columbia and the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico.

The legalization of marijuana, whether for medical or recreational use, reflects the country’s changing attitude toward cannabis, but is not without controversy. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who for years has opposed legalization of the drug, has asked congressional leaders to undo federal medical marijuana protections.