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Counterpoint

A medical journal takes Jeff Sessions to school

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Almost on cue, the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal has published a groundbreaking study indicating that states with medical marijuana programs are seeing substantially lower rates of opioid addiction and overdose.

The study, set to be published in the April edition of the journal, is grabbing headlines just weeks after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decried the devil weed as a "life-wrecking dependency" that's "only slightly less awful" than heroin, and said he's "astonished" to hear people talk of marijuana as a means to address the nation's opioid epidemic.

Well, Sessions should pick up the April edition of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

To be clear, the study doesn't weigh in on any "life-wrecking" aspects or general awfulness of marijuana use. What it does is show that hospitalizations for complications from opioid abuse and dependence are roughly 23 percent lower in states with legal access to medical marijuana than in states without it.

The study looked at administrative records of hospital discharges from 27 states, nine of which had legalized medical marijuana, for 1997 through 2014. Researchers pored through the records and compiled data on hospitalizations related to marijuana dependence or abuse, opioid dependence or abuse, and opioid overdoses.

While researchers found no correlation between legalized medical marijuana and higher rates of marijuana-related hospitalizations, they did find a sharp drops in opioid-related hospital visits in states that permitted medical cannabis use. In addition to finding that hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse dropped by almost a quarter in medical marijuana states, researchers also found those states recorded 13 percent fewer opioid overdoses.

The study stops well short of labeling marijuana a "cure" for the nation's opioid epidemic — which has seen painkiller prescriptions quadruple since 1999 — and instead calls for additional study.

And there's the rub. The federal Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970, still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic, the same class as heroin, which makes it incredibly difficult for medical organizations and academic institutions to administer controlled studies on marijuana's medical uses. Consequently, many of the studies published to date — like this one — rely on existing records or anecdotal evidence.

This is a huge problem because for the handful of studies we have showing positive impacts of marijuana — from its utility in treating chronic pain to its potential to reduce heroin abuse — we have others showing links between its use and the development of schizophrenia and other psychoses.

There's a growing pile of evidence that marijuana has legitimate and potentially powerful medical uses, but there's still little science to say who it works best for and in what dosages. More troubling, there's been little to no study of who is most at risk of adverse mental health reactions.

So instead of going all Reefer Madness, it seems lawmakers and the nation's top cop would be wise to look at the country's drug laws in their entirety. If they did that, I think they'd see that almost 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2015. That's an average of 91 a day. Now we have a study indicating that marijuana might be able to cut those numbers by 13 percent, saving almost 12 lives a day. That's more than 4,000 a year.

One would think those lives lost — possibly needlessly — would be enough to take this federal marijuana conversation out of the hands of demagogues and put it in those of scientists, where it belonged all along.

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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