America's opioid crisis calls for rethinking federal marijuana ban
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A week after the bipartisan White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis submitted its preliminary report asking President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump Right way and wrong way Five things to know about the elephant trophies controversy MORE to declare a national state of emergency for the opioid crisis, Trump pledged that “we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win.”

That deadly epidemic saw nearly 91.8 million people — more than one in three U.S. adults — use prescription opioids in 2015, with more than 11 million of them misusing the drugs, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015, and the problem is getting worse.

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Trump did not specify the tactics he would use to combat the crisis, but one effective tool may come from an unlikely ally: U.S. Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker tries to find the right lane  Senate Democrats introduce bill to block Trump's refugee ban Overnight Regulation: Senate tax bill to include ObamaCare mandate repeal | Sessions sidesteps questions on WH influence on AT&T merger | Dems seek more transparency on student borrower rule MORE, a Democrat from New Jersey. The same week the White House commission released its report, Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, which could have a tremendous impact on how Americans manage pain.

Of the 11 million adults estimated to have misused prescription opioids in 2015, more than 63 percent cited physical pain as their reason for misuse. A recent study by doctors at the University of Michigan found that 1-in-16 surgery patients who is prescribed an opioid for pain relief becomes a “persistent user.”

Addressing this crisis in a meaningful way will require giving patients more options for managing both acute and chronic pain than a prescription for addictive narcotics. An alternative already exists, but expanding access to it will require shedding preconceived and inaccurate notions about marijuana’s therapeutic uses.

The legalization of marijuana in some states has created space for serious pharmaceutical innovators to develop therapeutic uses of marijuana as an alternative to opioid painkillers, and lifting the federal ban would spur further development.

With transdermal delivery (when substances are absorbed through the skin), a therapeutic use of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) combined with cannabidiol (CBD) provides moderate to severe pain relief that can be an alternative to opioids, without the side effects or addiction risks. Longstanding bans on studying marijuana have limited scientific exploration, but the research that exists demonstrates the therapeutic value of active ingredients like THC and CBD.

Nevertheless, we know they work. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said CBD “appears to be a safe drug with no addictive effects, and the preliminary data suggest that it may have therapeutic value for a number of medical conditions.”

In the case of pain relief, transdermal application to a local area of pain provides a more effective delivery of THC and CBD to fight inflammation without the gastrointestinal side effects that are common with opioid pills.

A study published this year in the journal Drug & Alcohol Dependence showed that legalization of marijuana for medical purposes reduced opioid-related hospitalization by 23 percent. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reports the death rate from prescription drug overdose is 25 percent lower in states that allow use of marijuana for chronic pain.

Expanding access to non-opioid pain therapy is one clear, compassionate solution to the opioid crisis. Now that the data shows therapeutic use of marijuana is a better alternative to opioids, it’s the logical solution as well.

Sen. Booker’s bill comes at the right time. Removing the Schedule 1 classification for marijuana and allowing for more innovation around therapeutic uses of marijuana won’t solve the opioid crisis outright, but it would represent a big step forward. Without it, we continue to put millions at risk of opioid addiction.

Eric C. Smart is the founder and CEO of Myaderm, a Colorado-based company that provides the only commercially available transdermal Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) cream for the treatment of pain and inflammation.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.