Could Cannabis Help Stop The Opioid Epidemic? Elizabeth Warren Wants To Find Out

Leading Republican candidates say that cannabis has helped cause America's opioid epidemic. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren says it may help stop it.

In a letter sent to Dr. Thomas Friedan - Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Warren noted an alarming figure: Americans consume 75 percent of the world's prescription opioid medication, but the U.S. represents only five percent of the world's population. Meanwhile, accidental overdoses of prescription opioids are spiking in states such as Massachusetts, Warren's home state.

To combat America's dependence on opioids, Warren is calling on the CDC to find alternative medications to treat pain. In particular, she wants the CDC to fill gaps in knowledge concerning, "the use, uptake and effectiveness of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids" and "the impact of the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana on opioid overdose deaths".

Easier said than done

Warren isn't alone amongst federal politicians in her belief that researchers need to study marijuana thoroughly. Many Democratic as well as Republican presidential candidates are also in favor, but America's drug laws are a major roadblock in the way of researchers.

Cannabis is currently listed as a Schedule I drug, making it one of the most tightly controlled substances in the country, says John Hudak of the Brookings Institution:

"Schedule I makes cannabis research difficult in terms of costs, paperwork and bureaucratic procedure. The way federal government restricts access, each type of substance has its own rules that apply to who can handle the substances or even be in the same lab as certain substances....For Schedule I, everyone in the lab has to be approved."

Getting that approval means adhering to strict regulations in order to get (and later renew) licenses and permits required to study cannabis, and that process is costly. The legal status of cannabis also creates stigmas that deter researchers from examining it, Hudak told Civilized.

"Schedule I means cannabis has no medicinal value [according to the federal government]. That creates cultural biases in universities and research institutions. Universities are pretty conservative places in terms of risk taking. Donors may not be interested in funding a university researching marijuana because it is a harmful drug with no medical value according to the federal drug scheduling."

To combat those biases, Hudak and the Brookings Institution have called on the federal government to reschedule cannabis as a Schedule II drug:

"Schedule II changes the situation in a very significant way. Schedule II substances may have medicinal value. They can be used in extremely regulated settings and for medical treatment. That declaration alone can change the way in which a substance is perceived, eliminating some of those cultural biases."

Those "extreme regulations," however, are more lenient than the current restrictions on cannabis, so rescheduling would make research somewhat less costly and time consuming.

Again, easier said than done

There is no shortage of partisan and non-partisan support for rescheduling cannabis, but getting it done will require cooperation from Congress, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or the White House.

On Capitol Hill, there are currently a handful of bills that would change the drug scheduling. The strongest of these is arguably the CARERS Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and others. But despite garnering widespread support, the bill has stalled in committee.

However, rescheduling doesn't hinge on approval in Congress. The DEA has the power to reschedule cannabis, but that's a long-shot. Since cannabis was listed as a Schedule I substance in 1972, the DEA has repeatedly rejected petitions to reschedule it. And things likely will not change under the watch of the DEA's Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg. In September 2015, James Rosen of FOX News asked Rosenberg if he would consider removing cannabis from the drug scheduling:

"Yeah, I don't think so," Rosenberg said. "Marijuana is dangerous....I wouldn't recommend that anyone do it. So I don't frankly see a reason to remove it. We, by the way, support, and have supported, a lot of legitimate research on marijuana, fully behind that; I think it's great. If we come up with a medical use for it, that would be wonderful. But we haven't."

Two months later, Rosenberg sparked controversy when he called medical marijuana "a joke." So don't expect the DEA to make serious changes anytime soon.

But there is a third option to change America's cannabis laws. President Obama could use his executive authority to move cannabis lower on the drug schedule. However, on Jan. 29, Obama's press secretary John Earnest told reporters that any cannabis reforms would have to come from Congress. And even if legislators did pass a bill like the CARERS Act, Obama promised only to consider signing them into law.

Ultimately, Warren and the CDC need to call on lawmakers and law enforcers to end the War on Drugs and focus on the battle with addiction.

h/t The Weed Blog, Washington Post, FOX News, International Business Times

banner image: Mystery Pill / Flickr

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