America's consumption of opioids — legal pain meds — has been in the news for years. People are taking more pills for more maladies. And many are dying. By 2011, more than 15,000 people were dying every year from overdose on pain pills.
That is scary. There are people who need strong painkillers, and they should not be denied relief. But over-prescription and the relative ease of obtaining pills (legally or not) created a serious problem in this country (the Centers for Disease Control have called it an epidemic). The cost is very human (1.5 million emergency room visits from "nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals" in 2011) and very financial ($55 billion in opioid abuse costs in 2007).
Also well-documented is the systematic and rapid growth of the pharmaceutical companies that create and sell these products through clever advertising, lobbying and doctor recommendations. The companies are well-funded and efficient. And they should be worried about weed.
Investigative reports from the Nation and ProPublica have turned up instances of doctors and researchers promoting the use and safety of opioids, while being on the payrolls of the very companies creating the products. Recently, VICE reported that some of the most prominent and most quoted academics opposing marijuana legalization have similar ties: They are or have been on the payrolls of major prescription drug companies.
" ... Many of the largest anti-pot advocacy groups, including the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions for America, which has organized opposition to reform through its network of activists and through handing out advocacy material (sample op-eds against medical pot along with Reefer Madness-style videos, for example), has relied on significant funding from painkiller companies," writes Lee Fang in VICE.
That isn't to say there aren't legitimate medical, financial and safety reasons to be concerned about the nation's trend toward marijuana legalization. But why does the manufacturer of Oxycontin care? Maybe because marijuana can be grown in your own home, purchased relatively cheap, and seems poised to gain significant medical legitimacy in a coming wave of actual scientific research. Not to mention that there are no fatal pot overdoses on record.
In fact, a recent study by the Department of Veteran Affairs found that opioid overdose death rates are nearly 25 percent lower in U.S. states where medical marijuana is legal. The difference is even greater the longer medical marijuana has been legal (read, more accessible, with more medically approved users). For those seeking minor pain relief, marijuana, with a little bit of stigma lifted, will practically sell itself.
But Big Pharma's not going to relent. The multibillion dollar industry has a lot to defend and, in the last several decades, has gained a stronghold in the American philosophy on pain management and health care. If marijuana users can shake the stigma of "self-medication" (read: scary addicts) and our universities and research centers can unlock some of cannabis' undeniable medical potential, we can loosen that stranglehold.