Over the last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the headlines – rightfully so. But 2020 was the worst year on record for opioid overdoses in Maine and also across the country, a fact we should all be screaming from the rooftops. While this epidemic of addiction rages, our leaders in Washington need to steer far wide of any talk of liberalizing our nation’s marijuana laws.

Nationally, there were 81,000 drug overdose deaths from June 2019 through May 2020 – the most such deaths ever recorded over a 12-month span. In Maine, there were 502 deaths from drug overdose last year, and numbers from this year are even more concerning. We are very clearly in a crisis.

But one aspect in all of this seems to be overlooked: Is there a connection between the liberalization of marijuana laws and opioid overdose?

According to the most recently available data, in 2019 there were 611 opioid-related overdoses in Colorado, a 62 percent increase since marijuana became legal. Indeed, with the exception of a slight decline from 2017 to 2018, opioid overdose deaths have risen each year in Colorado since legalization took effect. Worse still, early data show 2020 will be the worst year on record for drug overdose in Colorado. In Washington, deaths from prescription opioids have been on a steady decline since 2011, but deaths from heroin and synthetic opioids have skyrocketed  since 2010 and 2015, respectively.

Similar trends can be seen in OregonCalifornia and Nevada – all states with so-called “legal” marijuana.

With these facts in mind, it’s astounding that we hear incessantly from proponents of legalization and the marijuana industry that the opioid crisis would be solved if pot were legal. Most of these claims were founded in a 2014 study claiming a 25 percent reduction in opioid deaths in states with medical marijuana. The results of this study have since been emblazoned across billboards nationwide.


Interestingly, this study only looked at states where medical marijuana had been legalized before 2010. In 2019, researchers at Stanford University replicated the 2014 study, adding in states that fully legalized, and found marijuana legalization was actually associated with a 25 percent increase in opioid fatalities.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, medical marijuana users make up around 2.5 percent of the population of any given state, so it’s logically infeasible that such a small population is responsible for a whopping 25 percent reduction in opiate mortality.

In the 2019 Stanford study, the lead author stated there exists an idea that “passing medical cannabis legalization (is) a good strategy to prevent opioid overdose death, and I think our study gives pretty good evidence, that it’s not.”

Additional research has shown marijuana users are more than twice as likely to misuse prescription opioids, more likely to require higher doses of opiate medications for chronic pain and more likely to use marijuana in conjunction with opioids.

So, the data show us two things that are quite clear: Marijuana legalization has not solved our opioid crisis, and the promotion and normalization of marijuana use could exacerbate our addiction issues. Knowing this, we must stop perpetuating the false notion that marijuana is an answer to opioid misuse. Furthermore, our leaders in Washington must avoid taking the bait of the marijuana industry and moving forward with nationwide commercialization.

It has been reported that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has joined forces with Sens. Cory Booker and Ron Wyden to draft a bill to legalize marijuana across the country. Though ours is a nation that desperately needs a conversation about the harms being perpetrated in the name of marijuana prohibition, we cannot skip over the discussion of the harms of further substance abuse and other hazards to health and safety a nationwide, profit-driven marijuana industry would bring.

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King must keep this in mind when this bill becomes a reality. We can’t afford to blindly create a new addiction crisis.

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