The biggest controversy over medical marijuana in Wyoming should be why legislators haven’t already legalized it.
Here’s the reason: many of our lawmakers don’t understand the issue. They remain blinded by the rhetoric of long ago when marijuana was thought of as a “gateway drug” as harmful as heroin. Those arguments are still made today by Wyoming legislators who rely on thoroughly outdated propaganda and incorrect information to keep medical marijuana illegal.
Opponents of marijuana use in the 1960s and 1970s maintained that it did not have any medical benefits, but now we know from scores of scientific studies that their claims were wrong. Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, improving the lives of patients with a host of diseases and conditions.
But not in the Cowboy State.
Inexplicably the vast majority of Wyoming legislators fail to grasp what is at the heart of the matter — pain relief and how to obtain it without becoming addicted to the opiates that are killing thousands of Americans each year.
We all experience pain. I can’t accept that we allow elected officials — not doctors, pharmacists or researchers mind-you — to dictate how we deal with it. Some argue that it is a morality issue. What’s moral about refusing aid to the suffering?
Others may argue that prohibition is the will of the people. Representatives taking that stance either don’t know, or don’t care, that an October 2016 University of Wyoming poll showed that an overwhelming 81 percent of state residents support the legal use of medical marijuana.
Despite its opposition to medical marijuana, the Legislature did show during the recent budget session that it is concerned about the sweeping opioid epidemic. Senate President Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) sponsored a bill to create an opioid addiction task force that will include lawmakers, physicians, pharmacists, law enforcement and others.
Medical marijuana deserves to be a priority consideration of the task force’s agenda and not rejected out-of-hand because some believe it is hazardous to their political and professional health.
Currently our lawmakers have left those with chronic suffering with three unacceptable options: choose to live with pain, risk addiction and overdose with prescription or street opiates, or break the law by smuggling marijuana into Wyoming that was legally purchased in Colorado, Montana or other states.
Two new studies published last week by the JAMA Internal Medicine journal corroborate what other research projects have shown — the availability of legal marijuana reduces reliance on legal opiates like oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine, and illegal street drugs like heroin.
Since 1999, according to Scientific American magazine, opiate overdoses have killed more than 165,000 Americans. The publication estimates the social costs of abusing these drugs at $55 billion per year.
If there is a way to provide effective pain relief for Wyomingites that will not end in tragedy for the victims, their families, friends and communities, we should jump on it. That’s especially true when the alternative already has widespread public support. About the only thing standing in the way of this readily available solution is the hide-bound ideology of the unwinnable “war on drugs.”
News flash, we lost that “war” decades ago. But the casualty count keeps climbing.
Peter Grinspoon, M.D., of Harvard Medical School says the most common use of medical marijuana is the relief from chronic pain and diseases such as cancer and multiple sclerosis.
“Marijuana is said to be a fantastic muscle relaxant, and people swear by its ability to lessen tremors in Parkinson’s disease,” Grinspoon wrote in the Harvard Health Blog. The Harvard physician noted it has also been successfully used for fibromyalgia, endometriosis, interstitial cystitis “and most other conditions where the final common pathway is chronic pain.”
We already know that marijuana can be used to help patients with cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and to manage nausea and weight loss associated with HIV, irritable bowel syndrome and Chron’s disease. Scientists are now researching how the drug can be used to help veterans returning from combat zones with PTSD. Early results are promising.
The number of diseases and medical conditions alone that can be successfully treated with medical marijuana is reason enough for state lawmakers to approve its use. But the new studies show medical marijuana also significantly decreases opioid use.
Researchers at the University of Georgia, in the most comprehensive study of the subject to date, found that states with medical marijuana dispensaries saw a nearly 15 percent decline in the number of daily opioid doses filled under Medicare Part D. In other words, in states where people have legal access to marijuana, pharmacies issue fewer, people consume fewer and the federal government pays for fewer dangerous opioids.
A University of Kentucky study came at the question from a slightly different angle but showed similar results. In their experiment, the Kentucky researchers found that in states with medical marijuana laws doctors wrote 5.88 percent fewer opiate prescriptions on average. In recreational pot states like Colorado the reduction jumped to 6.38 percent.
If the remaining 21 states, including Wyoming, approved medical marijuana, it’s logical to conclude that number could be even higher.
Over the years a limited number of Wyoming legislators have shown they understand the benefits of medical marijuana. Former Sen. Keith Goodenough (D-Casper) sponsored a bill in 2003 that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but died when Republican leaders refused to allow the measure to get to the Senate floor.
One of the senators who voted for the bill in committee 15 years ago was current Sen. Bruce Burns (R-Sheridan), who explained at the time that he brought marijuana from Colorado to New York to help ease the pain of a relative who was dying of cancer. That experience three decades ago convinced Burns that Wyoming should allow a physician to prescribe marijuana to patients, and pharmacies to fill those prescriptions just like painkillers, penicillin and other drugs.
Rep. Sue Wallis (R-Recluse), who saw her husband’s pain ease from medical marijuana as he was dying of lung cancer in a Colorado hospital, had planned to introduce a medical marijuana bill but she died in January 2014 before it could happen.
Burns and Wallis learned first-hand from their relatives how beneficial medical marijuana can be. But at this stage lawmakers shouldn’t need personal experience to buy in. The mountains of medical evidence and the enormous social benefits experienced in other states should be enough.
In the campaign to combat the widespread problem of opioid addiction that now claims the lives of an estimated 42,000 Americans per year, Trump has challenged researchers to “come up with a painkiller that’s not so addictive.”
But what the president wants is already available. Medical marijuana is one vital component in the battle against the opioid epidemic and it needs to be in the comprehensive packages of ways the state and federal governments save lives.
It doesn’t have to be difficult. Other states already have dispensary systems in place and laws covering growing and taxing cannabis. As many legislators like to say, there’s no need to “reinvent the wheel.” To combat opioid use — which the Legislature is already on record as supporting — legalizing medical marijuana makes sense and could be accomplished in the next general session.