America’s fatal overdose apocalypse is opening minds to cannabis — and resurrecting the absolute worst and most punitive drug-war attitudes.
Last month, as most of the internet-connected world was witnessing Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg alternately charm, dodge, and bamboozle Congress, another hearing was underway nearby — one that could potentially affect more people more strongly.
The Hearing You Didn't Hear About
Less splashy and less shareable than a semi-investigation into social media’s toxic effect on our democracy, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on “Defeating Fentanyl,” the synthetic opioid blamed for the steep increase in fatal opiate overdoses over the last few years of the crisis, was arguably more important for some of the very places Zuckerberg had taken pains to visit during his carefully choreographed tour of America the preceding year.
It was certainly more immediately relevant. While it is no longer possible to claim that, unlike prescription opiates, “at least Facebook hasn’t gotten anyone killed,” surely it’s true that fentanyl kills more Americans than are killed by likes and shares — even shares of patently false or inflammatory hate speech. Fatal drug overdoses eclipsed the 60,000 mark in 2016, with the rate of overdoses due to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids doubling. It was a counterfeit pain pill laced with fentanyl — fentanyl easily obtained over the internet from black-market supplies — that killed Prince, and tens of thousands.
The take that “drug overdoses are bad” is neither fresh nor hot. Nor is the observation that the drug overdose crisis is, in a perverse, overly optimistic way, good for marijuana legalization. Because, so far, a drug-induced apocalypse has helped inspire long-overdue drug policy reform.
An Unfortunate Path to Reform
Opiate dependency is now a qualifying condition for a medical cannabis recommendation. Mainstream researchers state, plainly, that marijuana can be effective in treating chronic pain, the condition for which opiates are most often prescribed — and this basic link is also being made by policymakers, who are more open than ever to considering medical marijuana, thanks in no small part to other research that found, hey, states where a non-addictive, mostly benign alternative like cannabis is available see fewer opiate overdoses and fewer opiate deaths!
Not every researcher agrees — a few, writing in a recent issue of Addiction, made a bizarre analogy to ice-cream sandwiches and drownings, two unrelated things, to argue that two drugs used to treat pain are also not related — but it seems clear that the zeitgeist has been altered. Marijuana legalization is more popular than ever. Medical marijuana's acceptance is near universal. Would this have happened without a drug-overdose crisis? You can hope, but we live in a world with one, and it's hard to separate the two phenomenon.
Change, and a reorientation of ideas, often requires chaos, or disorientation — and it’s hard to imagine a more chaotic, disorienting phenomenon than pharmaceutical companies’ eagerness to flood economically depressed areas of the United States with addictive, life-altering, potentially deadly medication.
For these reasons, you can claim to have found some good in the fentanyl crisis and not be seen as ghoulish or foolish. But there is also ample reason to worry, well beyond the health and welfare of the opiate user next door — which, following a freak accident or unfortunate turn of health, could soon be you, as the opiate crisis is also stirring some of the worst and most beastly impulses unleashed by the drug war.
A Fatal Flood
In December 2016, following an award-winning report from the Charleston, West Virginia Gazette Mail that showed how pharma companies flooded the state with hundreds of millions of opiate-based pain pills, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin told CNN that the only solution was a new “war on drugs.” Egged on by President Donald Trump, who has openly admired Rodrigo Duterte, the cheerfully murderous president of the Philippines, where police and political gangs conduct open extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users, U.S. lawmakers are openly considering the death penalty for fentanyl providers (despite having “drug-induced homicide” laws on the books since the 1980s, to no appreciable positive effect). Opiates have even inspired American law-enforcement agencies to cut videos in which they dress and behave like… well, you be the judge.
There have been some measured approaches in Congress. A bipartisan push to fund both more treatment and more sensitive equipment to aid law enforcement’s ability to intercept fentanyl shipments is a good example of carrot and stick together, in reasonable proportions. But too much of what little the Trump Administration has done to confront the situation is punitive in nature, emphasizing policing and punishment over treatment — or reasonable alternatives, an approach drug-policy reform advocates know as “harm reduction.”
The ideological divide on this — between whether the solution is stricter punishments or something else — is sadly and predictably partisan.
If the last 50 years and counting of the war on drugs has demonstrated anything, it’s that filling prisons and courtrooms with drug offenders doesn’t do much to stop drug users. Meanwhile, the albeit limited research on opiate use and marijuana as an alternative for pain management at the least strongly suggests that cannabis is a viable alternative. State legislatures, voters, and some federal lawmakers grasp this. But if old-school, lock-em-up attitudes also reemerge thanks to fentanyl, the disaster will be compounded.