With nearly 200 overdose deaths a day, America's opioid addiction epidemic is reaching every nook, cranny, and corner of the country. But as health officials, law enforcement, and politicians carve a path forward through interdiction, treatment, and opioid alternatives, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar has already dismissed medical cannabis as an option, even in the face of continued research showing the controversial plant's immense ability to wean users off pain pills and heroin.
According to Ohio's Yellow Springs News, Azar was in the Buckeye State last week to visit a privately-funded recovery center for new mothers struggling with opioid addiction. There, the HHS Secretary spoke to reporters about the next steps in combating the drug crisis by developing new, non-opioid pain relief drugs.
"Over $750 million in 2019 alone will be dedicated to the National Institutes of Health working in a public-private partnership to develop the next generations of pain therapies that are not opioids, as well as to develop the best evidence around alternative ways of treating pain that do not involve opioids," Azar told the crowd at the Kettering, Ohio wellness center, Brigid's Path. "So that's where our focus is."
Understandably, the expansive funding announcement raised questions about the future of using medical cannabis to fight opioid use, with one reporter from the Yellow Springs News asking Azar specifically about studies supporting weed's role in reducing addiction and overdose. But out of the almost $1 billion in funding, Azar was clear that absolutely none of it would go towards developing a THC or CBD-based treatment. The Trump administration's top health advisor even went as far as to claim that "there is no such thing as medical marijuana."
"I would want to emphasize first that there really is no such thing as medical marijuana," Azar said. "We have treatments that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are safe, that are proven to be safe and effective for pain, safe and effective for other conditions… There is no FDA approved use of marijuana, a botanical plant."
Of course, cannabis has proven to be one of the world's safest drugs, with no recorded fatalities from the drug itself in human history. The plant's efficacy remains "unproven" only because of legal barriers imposed by the federal government. But, ignoring those glaring facts, Azar also turned a blind eye to existing studies that utilized data from the 30 U.S. states and districts with some form of cannabis legalization.
In an op-ed in The Hill from NORML deputy director Paul Armentano, the legal weed activist cites research from Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, and other states with medical or recreational cannabis laws that depict significant decreases in opioid abuse from marijuana users, with medical marijuana patients reporting both decreased chronic pain and withdrawal urges after deferring to ganja. Armentano's argument also references a new study released this week from researchers in Minnesota claiming that 63% of the state's opioid-using medical marijuana patients "were able to reduce or eliminate opioid usage after six months."
Like Jeff Sessions and the rest of the Trump administration, Azar is continuing the federal government's selective ignorance on cannabis. By dismissing medical marijuana's benefits before looking at the facts, politicians are essentially contributing to the pain of their constituents and marking themselves as complicit in the opioid crisis that's got the country in its grip.
Follow Zach Harris on Twitter