Fighting marijuana during opioid epidemic is more black than white

Fighting marijuana during opioid epidemic is more black than white
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Not a single American has died from a marijuana overdose in our nation's history. But last year more than 60,000 Americans perished in this country’s raging opioid epidemic. That's more than all Americans killed during the entire Vietnam War. From a health policy perspective, America’s priority should be clear.

Yet on Jan. 4, 2018, Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsRosenstein still working at DOJ despite plans to leave in mid-March Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump O'Rourke on impeachment: 2020 vote may be best way to 'resolve' Trump MORE overturned the Cole Memo that allowed states to dictate and enforce their own laws regarding marijuana. It was an Obama-era policy that limited federal prosecutions of both individuals and dispensaries that relied upon prevailing state law. 

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For an alleged supporter of states’ rights, Sessions’ choices about which federal laws to enforce and which to ignore are circumspect. He does not, for instance, believe the federal government should enforce the Voting Rights Act to enfranchise minorities, nor that the government should recognize same sex marriage.. But he does believe in diverting justice department resources to fight a drug that 64 percent of Americans want legalized — a drug which has killed no one in several millennia of human use.

 

But it gets even more problematic. The war on drugs has become a de-facto war on people of color, incarcerating record numbers of African Americans to the point that it has become a human rights issue. According to the ACLU, more than half of all drug arrests in this country are due to marijuana. While blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rate, African Americans are more than four times likely to be arrested.

In fact, African Americans are just 12 percent of the United States population but make up 62 percent of all drug offenders sent to jail. All things being equal, a black man is 13 times more likely to be sent to prison for the same drug charge as a white man.

Were issues of racial injustice not enough, overturning the Cole Memo negatively impacts public health as well. It worsens the opioid epidemic in two major ways. 

First of all, it diverts resources that could better be used to combat the opioid drug distributors. This is especially the case as Congress passed a law in April 2016 that effectively stripped the DEA's ability to combat suspicious narcotic shipments from unscrupulous drug companies. They are literally profiting from hundreds of thousands of Americans addicted to prescription narcotics. 

In a joint Washington Post and 60 Minutes expose, former DEA administrator Joseph Rannazzisi revealed how the drug distribution lobby colluded with Congress to "allow millions and millions of drugs to go into bad pharmacies and doctors' offices that distributed them out to people who had no legitimate need for those drugs.”

Secondly, there is evidence to suggest that marijuana legalization leads to a decrease in opioid-related deaths. A two year study in the American Journal of Public Health showed that opioid deaths decreased by 6 percent in Colorado after recreational marijuana was legalized. It reversed an upward trend that had been plaguing Colorado for years.

Another study by Columbia University showed there was a significant reduction in the number of traffic fatalities from drivers who tested positive for opioids in the states that had legalized marijuana. It seems as if legalizing marijuana not only prevents opioid related deaths in opioid users, but in uninvolved bystanders as well. 

Jeff Sessions is shifting federal government enforcement priorities in the wrong direction. Fighting marijuana during an opioid epidemic is more black than white. It makes no practical or moral sense and only deteriorates public health while increasing racial disparity. We need an Attorney General and a Justice Department that puts the needs of all Americans first, all of the time, regardless of the color of one’s skin. 

Dr. Eugene Gu is a resident physician at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and president of the Ganogen Research Institute. He graduated from Stanford University with honors and holds an M.D. from the Duke University School of Medicine.