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Marijuana Use Saves Lives: Medical Marijuana Use Cuts Down On Opioid Deaths While The DEA Bans Kratom

October 7, 2016

I know, I know, marijuana is bad. We don’t know how bad, but it’s bad. It’s addictive. It is a gateway drug. It relieves pain. It’s not an opiod. It’s not always prescribed by doctors. People can grow it themselves. Lots of people use it. Marijuana cuts down on opioid-related deaths, and we should ban it.

Oh, wait, there is that pesky bit about how people want to legalize it, use their own democracy or something. Make some changes in the big pharma attitude of making money at all costs (we’re looking at you Epi-Pens).

Of course the US can’t study marijuana to really determine its effects, but politicians tell us it’s bad because it doesn’t come standardized from big pharma. The FDA hasn’t approved it like it did Vioxx (caused heart attacks and was removed from the market), Rxsperadol (causes breast growth in men but is still used), Thalidomide used to treat morning sickness (caused birth defects and cancers to the offspring). We must

In a study, researchers from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health analyzed traffic fatality data from 1999-2013 for 18 U.S states. They found that most states that passed medical marijuana laws saw an overall reduction in fatal crashes involving drivers who tested positive for opioids.

“We would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain,” lead author June H. Kim, a doctoral student at Mailman, said in a statement.

The study, published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health, is among the first to look at the link between state medical marijuana laws and opioid use. Medical marijuana laws, the authors concluded, are “associated with reductions in opioid positivity among 21- to 40-year-old fatally injured drivers and may reduce opioid use and overdose.”

Let’s blindly demonize what we don’t know, shall we? And let’s keep it up for years. OR, we could look at the Netherlands which legalized pot a long time ago and has a lower user rate than the US.

Although hard data on cannabis use in Europe is patchy, the Netherlands does not have hugely more users than other nations. Data aggregated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime put use in the Netherlands at about 7%. That is more than in Germany (5%) and Norway (5%), about the same as in the United Kingdom and less than in the United States (15%). Nor has the Netherlands seen a huge spike in use of harder drugs, dampening fears that marijuana serves as a gateway to more-dangerous substances such as heroin and cocaine. The message from the Netherlands, says Franz Trautmann, a drugs-policy researcher at the Trimbos Institute in Utrecht, the Netherlands, is that “a very liberal policy doesn’t lead to a skyrocketing prevalence”. Rather, cannabis is endemic, he says. “We can’t control this through prohibition. This is something which more and more is recognized.”

But the lesson from the Netherlands may be limited because the drug is still illegal, and growing and selling large quantities is still punishable by law. Colorado has gone further by legalizing not merely the drug’s use, but the whole production chain, and that could have fundamentally different effects on the economics of pot. “Legalized production really raises the prospect of a dramatic drop in price,” says MacCoun. “It’s conceivable marijuana prices could drop 75–80% in a fully legalized model.” (Although Uruguay legalized the drug in 2013, it reportedly has struggled to regulate production and to set up working dispensaries.)

The effects of a sharp drop in cost are unknown. Taxation may also have unintended consequences. If states tax by weight, users might look to higher-potency strains to save money. And once cannabis is a business, it gains a business lobby. Cannabis researchers already talk of being bombarded with e-mails from pro-cannabis groups if they make negative comments about the drug. “Marijuana research is like tobacco research in the ’60s,” says Hopfer. “Any study about harms is challenged. It’s really something.” Many fear that the big money now to be found in cannabis will drive attempts to obfuscate the risks. “If the commercial interests are too big, then the profit interest is prevailing above the health interest. This is what I’m afraid of,” says Trautmann.

Cannabis is now in the same realm as other pharmaceuticals–we have to trust big business to tell us what’s safe, and oftentimes what is safe is what makes money. Flint water supply discussion, anyone? Thalidomide? Vioxx? How much money is made before a product is deemed unsafe?

Kratom, the newest herbal supplement targeted by the FDA for being an effective pain reliever. There have been 15 reported deaths linked to Kratom in the last two years. Cue the hysteria, in comparison with the doctor-prescribed opioids which killed 14,000 in the last year alone. The big difference between Kratom and opioids, like marijuana, is that the FDA doesn’t control the drug. And notice that just like marijuana, fear is the driving force behind regulation, not science:

Plus, doctors feared that people were using kratom to wean themselves off opioid drugs or alcohol without seeking professional help. The National Institutes of Health says that the substance hasn’t been proven safe and effective for this purpose. And there’s the pervasive fear of adulteration in such an unregulated product.

So what do health officials think?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned people not to take kratom. At the end of August, the DEA announced that it would temporarily classify two of kratom’s chemicals — mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynineit — as Schedule I drugs, alongside heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and marijuana. This designation is reserved for drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” (And, yes, marijuana is still on this list somehow.)

The DEA can temporarily classify substances as Schedule I (essentially banning them) for up to two years if it believes they present a public health threat. After studying them, the agency could maintain or remove the ban. The classification was set to take place no sooner than September 30.

Has it happened yet?
No; there was a pretty big backlash to the initial announcement

God forbid someone feared going to get help from physicians who caused the opioid decency in the first place to tell them that they weren’t going to take the prescribed opioids anymore. Seems perfectly rational, no? Fear here makes people stupid. Kratom, for the record, is related to the coffee bean plant, and coffee is addictive, has been found to help relieve pain, and has shown withdrawal side effects; however, the FDA doesn’t ban coffee.

The DEA faced such intense backlash after it announced it was banning another herbal remedy. Backlash that surprised the DEA.

The agency apparently was surprised by the backlash against its kratom ban, which included angry phone calls to Capitol Hill, a demonstration near the White House, and letters from members of Congress. The DEA still intends to finalize the ban, although it did not take effect last Friday as expected.

Patterson, the DEA spokesman, said the reaction to the ban “was eye-opening for me personally.” He added that “I want the kratom community to know that the DEA does hear them.”

That attitude is quite a contrast to the deaf arrogance the DEA displayed when it announced that it was temporarily placing kratom in Schedule I, a classification that lasts at least two years and could become permanent. Declaring that a ban was necessary “to avoid an imminent hazard to public safety,” the DEA summarily dismissed kratom’s benefits while exaggerating its dangers.

The DEA describes all kratom use as “abuse.” It was therefore easy for the agency to conclude that the plant has “a high potential for abuse,” one of the criteria for Schedule I.

Since the DEA assumed there was no rational, morally acceptable reason to use kratom, it did not need to muster much evidence that the drug is intolerably dangerous. It claimed there have been “numerous deaths associated with kratom,” by which it meant 30. In the whole world. Ever.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol causes about 88,000 deaths a year in this country, while 28,000 deaths were attributed to heroin and opioid painkillers in 2014. Kratom looks pretty benign by comparison.

Another point to keep in mind: “Deaths associated with kratom” are not necessarily caused by kratom. “Kratom is considered minimally toxic,” noted a 2015 literature review in the International Journal of Legal Medicine. “Although death has been attributed to kratom use, there is no solid evidence that kratom was the sole contributor to an individual’s death.”

Perhaps the morality question should be removed from the concept of pain relief, addiction, and medications. If we stop looking at addiction as component of the morality of a person, then we could look at whether or not there is some evidence of a medication’s aid or detriment. Instead of saying that marijuana is bad because it is addictive, we could look at what else is addictive in our society that we accept: cigarettes, alcohol, nicotine in general, caffeine, coffee, and possibly marijuana. As a society, we accept some addictions but not others, and that moral stance, harkening to the Puritanistic mindset seems to be blinding us to all else. Opioids are approved by the FDA but kill more people than other addictive substances, but we do need opioids. Opioids do help people in extreme pain. Marijuana may, too, as may kratrom. Take the church out of the government, and perhaps we can pay attention to when medications save lives instead of assigning them a moral value.


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