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As the U.S. government weighs options to resolve the country's growing opioid crisis, a bipartisan group of legislators are urging the Trump administration to consider allowing medical cannabis as a safer alternative to addictive pharmaceuticals. In a letter to Acting Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Eric D. Hargan, the legislators wrote that “our country is grappling with an opioid epidemic that is now taking 91 lives every single day,” Marijuana Moment reports.
The letter explains that “recent studies published by qualified academic researchers suggest that marijuana may prove to be a useful alternative treatment for chronic pain instead of harmful, addictive prescription opioids, and that marijuana may reduce the overall number of opioid overdose deaths.” Earlier this year, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that states with legal access to cannabis experienced 25% fewer opioid overdose deaths than states that prohibit cannabis. Other new research studies conducted by the University of New Mexico as well as private research firm Aclara have confirmed these findings.
Earlier this week, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins discussed this new research at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Help, Education, Labor and Pensions. “There seems to be a statistical relationship between the states that have legalized marijuana and a reduced incidence of opioid overdoses and deaths,” Collins said according to Marijuana Moment. “But one has to be careful there. That’s a correlation, and not necessarily a causation. I would not want to leap to that.”
At the hearing, Sen. Bill Cassidy asked Collins why the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) receives less funding than other NIH institutes at a time when the opioid crisis is taking so many lives. “As the NIH director I don’t get to set those numbers,” Collins answered as reported by the Washington Examiner. “We follow what the Congress tells us.” Collins also explained that in order for NIH to shift more funding to NIDA, Congress would need to specifically direct them to do so.
Collins also mentioned that NIH is “very interested in pursuing” medical cannabis research while appearing before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on opioid issues this week. “Among the various strategies that we expect to explore in greater intensity [for] identifying alternatives to opioids would be cannabinoids of various types that might produce pain relief, without producing the other unfortunate side effects that people are concerned about with smoked marijuana,” he explained to the committee.
In the legislative letter to HHS secretary Hargan, the lawmakers conclude that “we should not ignore any information that suggests there may be a tool available to fight the opioid epidemic that we are not using to the fullest extent. While it is clear that more research is necessary, it is equally clear that medical marijuana is an alternative pain treatment that merits the attention of the federal government.”
While these legislators are in agreement with Collins that further research is necessary, the Schedule I classification of marijuana blocks this research from moving forward. “One problem for us [is] the way in which Schedule I has been applied to marijuana, which means that doing research in that and in other Schedule I drugs can be extremely onerous for researchers,” Collins told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “The approvals take as long as a year to happen. One of the asks, I guess, if we had one in terms of a policy change, would be to provide special exemptions to allow more research to be done on Schedule I drugs.”
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