by Caleb Talley
Since the beginning of the year, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had legal marijuana in his crosshairs. The country’s top cop has been outspoken for years in his disdain for the plant, and earlier this year, Sessions turned the cannabis industry upside down with the reversal of the Cole Memo.
The Cole Memo, written by former Deputy Attorney General James Cole in 2013, advised all U.S. attorneys to defer to state and local authorities when it came to prosecuting marijuana-related activity. That allowed states that have legalized use of the plant, if even just for medicinal purposes like Arkansas, to move forward with the will of the people.
Arkansas voters expressed their support for medical marijuana in 2016, despite objections from almost everyone state office holder. But despite voter affirmation, medical marijuana is still out of reach for Arkansans. And as we continue to elevate the conversation over opioid abuse, a dangerous epidemic in our state and others, it only makes sense that we continue to advocate for the access of a safer alternative.
Every day, various medications are prescribed to Americans for all sorts of ailments and painful symptoms. Many of these very legal forms of medicine come with harsh side effects and a serious risk of addiction. But there’s an alternative that can treat pain, reduce the severity of certain ailments and does not carry with it the risk of death due to addiction.
It’s a plant. It grows naturally from the earth. It’s marijuana.
Pot. Weed. Herb. Grass. Reefer. You can call it whatever you want. But in November 2016, Arkansas voters overwhelming expressed their support of its use as medicine.
Prior to that vote, several political and business leaders voiced their opposition to medical marijuana, suggesting its legalization would result in a more dangerous work environment. Businessmen representing the construction, trucking and other heavy-equipment-using industries echoed the unsupported claim that allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes in Arkansas would result in stony-bologna crew members operating cranes and forklifts, wreaking havoc on a jobsite.
Their argument relied on hasty generalizations, non-sequiturs. Why would marijuana, administered as medicine, be any different than any other form of medication? Even the back of my Nyquil bottle says not to operate heavy machinery after taking. Does that mean general liability rates will go up whenever a foreman gets the sniffles? Doubtful.
We have been conditioned to see marijuana through a lens crafted by decades-worth of propaganda. The war on marijuana that Sessions hopes to continue has nothing to do with preventing teens from catching “reefer madness” and everything to do with profits.
Here’s something you probably didn’t learn in history class:
In the early 20th century, the Du Pont Chemical Company obtained the process patent for turning wood pulp into paper. Hemp, derived from the marijuana plant, was a much superior source of paper. It didn’t destroy our forests in the process, either. Along with media magnet William Randolph Hearst and then-Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon – who had invested heavily in a new Du Pont nylon fiber (imagine that) – the Du Pont family led and funded a propaganda campaign against marijuana, the company’s chief competitor.
Their efforts led to a series of poorly attended congressional hearings and reports based on questionable research. By 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, making possession or transfer of marijuana illegal.
For years, our government allowed corporate powers to use their influence (money) to promote policy shifts that better enabled them to dominate the market. In the case of marijuana, it started with the timber industry. Today, it’s pharmaceuticals. Big pharma and the politicians they fund have spent the past 20-30 years increasing their profit margins by getting countless Americans addicted to their legal, lethal painkillers.
According to projections presented by marijuana opponents back in 2016, nearly 9 percent of those who have smoked marijuana will become addicted. In contrast, 1 in 4 Americans who receive legal prescription opioid painkillers will end up struggling with addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control. According to those same statistics, 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on pain medications in 2014.
But hey, it’s good for business! The CDC also reported that from 1999 to 2014, sale of prescription painkillers in the U.S. quadrupled. Are Americans in more pain than we were just a few years ago? Nope, we’re just addicted. There was no change in the overall amount of pain sufferers, but the number of overdose deaths rose at the same rate as sales.
In fact, the United States, as a whole, consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply, despite only having about 5 percent of the world’s population. Americans don’t have more pain than our neighbors overseas. What we do have are drug dealers in suits, ensuring that we continue to buy their supply.
In 2015 alone, roughly 300 million pain prescriptions were written. That equals approximately $24 billion being added into the pharmaceutical industry. Needless to say, pain pills are big business. And it’s not only costing addicts, it’s costing tax payers as well.
Last year, about 170,000 Medicare beneficiaries were believed to be “doctor shopping.” Doctor shopping is when a patient visits multiple doctors in order to keep receiving the same pain medications, and then having those prescriptions filled at several different pharmacies. According to the Government Accountability Office, doctor shopping with Medicare funds costs tax payers approximately $100 million a year.
The real cost, however, is the vast number of lives lost to pain medication addiction over the last 20 years.
Every day, more than 115 people die from opioid overdose, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Since 1999, the number of deaths from legal prescription drug overdose has more than doubled. The number of those that died from pain reliever overdose has more than tripled. In 2016 alone, more than 64,000 people died from overdosing on prescription pain medications – more than the entirety to the Vietnam War.
As the epidemic kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, why would Sessions & Co. continue to demonize a safer alternative? It’s not like opioid addiction is some distant concern. It affects countless Arkansans, as well. In fact, Arkansas is one of the most overprescribed states in America. According to the CDC, the number of painkiller prescriptions per 100 Arkansans ranges from 96 to 146.
As a result, drug poisoning is the number one cause of unintended death in both Arkansas and the United States. In a recent study, researchers even found that painkillers were abused more frequently than cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and cigars combined.
Want to know how many people overdosed on marijuana last year? Zero. Want to know how many overdosed the year before that? None. Not one single person in recorded history has been killed from ingesting too much marijuana.
Instead, marijuana helped a number of epileptic children live normal lives by significantly reducing the amount of seizures they had on a daily basis. It helped many chemotherapy patients regain both their appetites and their cheerfulness.
For more on the benefits of medical marijuana in Arkansas and the U.S., look for next week’s Cash & Candor.
In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he called balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Cash & Candor here.