President Donald Trump caught headlines earlier this month when he unexpectedly dropped into a White House summit on opioids and — in the midst of pledging to crack down on drug "pushers" — mused that some countries execute people convicted of drug offenses. It was a classic Trumpian throwaway line that drew applause from those in attendance at the summit, including Kellyanne Conway, the alternative-fact-touting pollster and communications specialist with no public health experience whom Trump inexplicably tapped to act as the administration's opioid czar and lead the national campaign to reduce opioid abuse.
And this came just weeks after Newsweek reported that Conway has sidelined the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the nation's leading experts, from conversations and instead convened an "opioid cabinet" of political staff that is reportedly pushing a "just say no" campaign and echoing the president's calls for a border wall. So the administration's response to an epidemic that killed an average of 175 people a day in 2016 and has only gotten worse since is to tell people not to do drugs, throw more resources into the war on drugs and spend untold billions on what most agree is a political symbol that will do little to curb the flow of people or drugs into this country.
What's this all have to do with weed, you ask? A lot more than you might think.
First, there's the example of the utter failure of marijuana prohibition, under which decades of "just say no" campaigns, mandatory minimum prison sentences and eradication efforts in the hills did absolutely nothing to curb Americans' thirst for mind-altering substances and little to curb dealers' ability to supply them. Then there's the growing body of research that suggests marijuana can be a valuable harm reduction tool to curb the national opioid epidemic.
The same week Trump was patting Conway on the back and throwing out casual applause lines, the Minnesota Department of Public Health released data analyzing the first five months of its medical cannabis program, which showed that of patients enrolled in the program who were taking opiate painkillers, 63 percent reduced or eliminated their opioid usage within six months of enrollment.
The data is hardly surprising. In 2016, a study of Michigan's medical cannabis program found "a 64 percent decrease in opioid use."
Then there's a recent clinical trial published in Israel, where medical cannabis is federally permitted, which looked at a group of 1,200 cancer patients and found that nearly half were able to reduce or eliminate their use of opioid pain killers by substituting cannabis.
There's also the study published last year in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, which analyzed administrative records of hospital discharges from 27 states, nine of which had legalized medical marijuana, from 1997 through 2014. The researchers found that hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse dropped by almost 25 percent in medical marijuana states, which also recorded 13 percent fewer opioid overdoses.
If those numbers held under a national framework, that could save some 23 lives a day — more than 8,300 lives a year.
But that would take some semblance of real leadership on the issue from Congress — members of which received an average of $30,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry in 2016 — and Trump's White House.
So instead of studying what appears to be a promising harm reduction tool that could potentially stem the spread of addiction and save thousands of lives annually, our nation's leaders are going to talk tough on crime, urge kids to "just say no" and push for a border wall. All these approaches will fail and, in the meantime, hundreds of people will continue to die every day.
Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.