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Will Medical Marijuana Help West Virginia’s Opioid / Heroin Epidemic?

Yesterday, the Governor of West Virginia signed a new law – the Medical Cannabis Act – which will enable people to access medical marijuana to help with pain. The hope is that people will stop using heroin and dangerous opioid painkillers and switch to marijuana. West Virginia’s opioid and heroin problem is worse than in any other State. Will marijuana help?

Prescription painkiller addiction, overdoses and deaths are a problem across the U.S. But nowhere is it as serious as in West Virginia. Overdose rates in West Virginia are 8 to 10 times higher than anywhere else in the U.S.  In Huntington, West Virginia, for example, they see about 20 overdoses every week. Also in Hungtington, emergency personnel responded to 27 overdoses in a 4-hour period in August 2016.

The overdose death rate in West Virginia is also the highest in the country.

One of the biggest problems is distribution of the pills. If someone was trying to kill off the people in the State without lining them up against a wall and shooting them, they probably couldn’t come up with a better strategy than what the drug distributors have been doing.

During a period of six years, West Virginia received shipments of 780 million pills – that’s 433 per person – regardless of age.

And if that isn’t crazy enough, you should see where the pills went. Of course, regular pharmacies received them in amounts that would be expected, but one pharmacy in town of 394 residents received more than 9 million hydrocodone pills in just two years. Everyone in the town would be dead if they took that many pills – it’s nearly 23,000 pills per resident – so, obviously, the pills were being distributed to dealers who were selling them unlawfully.

And that pharmacy was far from the only one receiving outrageous amounts.

The drug companies, wholesalers, and distributors are supposed to take note of large shipments and investigate them. Or, they can just turn their backs and make the money, regardless of how many people become addicted, have their lives ruined and, in some cases, lose their life and that of family members and friends.

It’s also causing a big problem for children. There are more than 5,000 kids in foster care in West Virginia, and 80 percent are there because of their parents using drugs. Some parents are dead, and some have had their kids taken away because of their drug use. The numbers keep climbing, and not gradually. The number of kids in foster care increased by 24 percent from 2012 to 2015 and by 13 percent from 2015 to 2016. If things keep going this way, there will be 10,000 parentless kids in just a few years.

Naturally, the Governor wants to do anything that can be done as fast as possible. So, he passed the medical marijuana bill.

But is medical marijuana the answer?

A study conducted by the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan shows that it might help. The study found that the chronic pain patients who participated in the study decreased their opioid use by 64 percent – on average, there’s no info on how many actual people that represented – when they used marijuana.

The study was done via an online questionnaire on 244 people who had gone to a medical marijuana dispensary in Michigan from November 13, 2103 through February 2015. One of the study’s authors is the medical director for that dispensary. Another has performed services for, been on the advisory board of, and obtained grant backing from a very long list of pharmaceutical companies. Several pharmaceutical companies have an interest in distributing marijuana and getting in on the latest cash cow. So, really, anything that makes it look like it works makes money.

It’s also hard to tell how much of a cross section the 244 people studied represent. Surely those people, who were able to get marijuana legally, and chose to do that rather than taking opioids, don’t represent whoever is getting those 9 million pills that went to one pharmacy in a town with a population of 394. Obviously, no one is overseeing this. Or, they’re getting away with it because of the huge amounts of money changing hands. Even if everyone in a town of 394 was on hydrocodone, if only the pills for those people were shipped to that pharmacy, the number of pills that wouldn’t be sold would still be close to 9 million. That’s a lot of money lost for drug manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, and pharmacies – right down to the dealers on the street who are getting the pills and addicting who knows how many.

In a recent opinion piece in The Hill , the writer said that even though some people might use fewer opioids because of using marijuana, there are a number of studies that show marijuana can also have disastrous effects. There are several published studies on this. Plus, as he said, we know nothing about prescribing marijuana, what the correct dosage should be, and so on.

And, as is the trend these days, it’s substituting one drug for another.

Marijuana is not the answer. A drugged population is not the answer.

There are plenty of people in chronic pain. First, make more non-drug treatment available to them and, second, get back to the basics of drug rehab – long-term residential drug rehab programs that really do get people off drugs, and really do rehabilitate their lives.

And, of course, prosecute the manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, pharmacists and so on who are selling prescription drugs illegally. Put them in prison, where they belong, and not just fine them the millions and billions of dollars that, for them, are pocket money.

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