Even if you live in one of the rare pockets of the country that hasn't been touched by the opioid epidemic currently underway, it’s a tragic and impossible-to-ignore backbeat behind so many important issues: health care, income inequality, veterans’ care, and prison reform, to name a few.
Frustrated by what they see as a disorganized and ineffectual response by federal and state governments, some activists are employing a two-pronged approach to the issue:
One, activists are turning to a decades-old legal strategy—the successful fight to uncover tobacco companies’ culpability in promoting an objectively dangerous product—to spur corporate accountability for the epidemic.
Two, activists are supporting an even older—we’re talking thousands of years old—approach for weaning addicts off opioids and similar drugs: cannabis. (In clinical turns, this is known as "substitution therapy," substituting a more harmful substance for a relatively benign substance.)
Back to the Future: Tobacco and a Public Health Crisis
For those of you too young to remember the days when drugstores happily sold children cigarettes “to bring home to mom,” and an era (the 1940s - 70s) in which over 40% of Americans identified as smokers, it’s worth pointing out that cigarettes were once deeply ingrained in American life. Doctors recommended them in television and print ads, and the Marlboro Man (created by a Chicago ad agency in 1954, the year U.S. cigarette consumption peaked) was as much of an icon as any politician, athlete or performer.
But faced with the ballooning social and fiscal costs of tobacco use, anti-tobacco activists began to initiate lawsuits against tobacco companies as far back as the 1950s. Although the approach didn’t begin to yield significant results until a shift in strategy—and the disclosure of documents demonstrating tobacco companies’ knowledge of their product’s addictive and deadly nature—led to a string of legal successes. The current percentage of American smokers was 17.3% as of 2013 and is still dropping.
Taking a Page from an Old Playbook: Substituting Opioids for Tobacco
Now, many states’ attorneys are using a similar argument to file suits against pharmaceutical companies; so far there are lawsuits in Ohio, West Virginia and Missouri, among others. Seen as a refinement of the so-called “Crack Tax” strategy of suing drug dealers for damages sustained by their clients, there’s a crucial difference.
Unlike many incarcerated drug traffickers, Big Pharma, of course, has the resources to pay the massive settlements sought in these lawsuits. It will likely be many months or years till judgments in these cases come down, but they could provide a roadmap for those trying to curb the opioid epidemic.
Can Cannabis Get—and Keep—People off Opioids?
Meanwhile, help may be coming from an unusual source - a drug that, until recently, was, at least from a legal perspective, considered as dangerous as heroin and other opioids: cannabis.
Based in part on the wave of research spurred by the wave of state-by-state legalization, some treatment programs are using cannabis as a tool to help wean people off more dangerous drugs.
This approach isn’t a shot in the dark; we’ve written elsewhere, a recent study by the University of Michigan found that people using cannabis to treat chronic pain reduced their use of opioids by a whopping 64%. And in what appears to be a strong correlative effect, states who’ve legalized medical cannabis have seen a 25% drop in deaths from opioids. (It’s still too early and there are no studies yet to identify trends in states with legal adult-use recreational marijuana.)
Of course, it’s far too early to declare victory; the opioid epidemic is in full force and unlikely to abate soon. But for now—at least in states with legal, safe cannabis—there’s real hope for relief.