In May 2016, the United States House Rules Committee took into consideration a bill designed to create a task force to investigate current practices of pain management and pain medication prescribing in an effort to help combat the ongoing opioid epidemic. The task force will be comprised of several government agencies including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Two proposed amendments to the bill were brought to the floor that would have included investigations into the efficacy and potential of medicinal cannabis as an alternative to opioid painkillers and both were immediately denied.
The first amendment was from Republican representative Dana Rohrbacher (California) and would have required the task force to study the potential for marijuana to serve as an alternative to opioids for pain management.
The second amendment, brought forth by Democrat representative Jared Polis (Colorado), would have required the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the differences between medical applications of marijuana and opioids for pain management.
Representative Polis’s amendment also required an official study of opioid overdose rates between states that do not allow medicinal cannabis use and those that do. Recent studies have shown that on average opioid painkiller overdose is almost 25% lower in states with medicinal cannabis laws.
The problem? Both amendments were quietly voted down as the committee ruled them to be out of order. The opioid epidemic in the United States is extremely widespread, affecting people from all walks of life. The rampant prescribing of opioid painkillers such as Oxycodone and Fentanyl has resulted in millions of people becoming addicted to the substances.
Reports from the CDC show that in 2014, more than 47,000 people died from some type of drug overdose, up 14% from 2013. Opioids have been found to be the relevant cause of nearly 61% of all overdoses. This means that in 2014 alone more than 28,000 people lost their lives to some type of opioid overdose.
Between 2013 and 2014, prescription opioid-related deaths rose at least 10% and deaths from heroin, the cheaper alternative, rose more than 26%. The numbers are truly staggering and since the year 2000 opioid related deaths have risen by more than 200%, with more than half a million people losing their lives—lives that could have possibly been saved with the simple addition of medicinal cannabis to their normal pain management routine.
One reason congress refuses to recognize the medical benefits of cannabis is because of the federal stance on the plant itself. In 1972, President Nixon signed into law a bill called the Controlled Substance Act that put into place a national drug classification program. This act placed cannabis into the Schedule 1 drug bracket. Schedule 1 drugs are narcotic substances that “have no medicinal benefits.”
Because of this classification the federal government does not allow testing or studies on the medicinal benefits of cannabis and are unwilling to recognize what is becoming the prevailing belief that cannabis has beneficial medicinal applications.
However, in a wild twist of contradiction, since 2003 the US government has held U.S. Patent 6630507 that states unequivocally that cannabinoids “can be useful in the prevention and treatment of a variety of diseases, including trauma, stroke, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.” Furthermore, the FDA has granted approval to a synthetic, pharmaceutical version of THC called Marinol.
Another reason congress refuses to accept cannabis as viable alternative to opioids is likely due to the close relationship they hold with pharmaceutical companies. The pharmaceutical industry is by far the biggest congressional lobbyist and one of the main sources of funding for political campaigns.
In 2015 alone, Big Pharma lobbied or donated to congressional members more than $200 million dollars, far exceeding the next big funding machine—the insurance companies. It’s understandable why pharmaceutical companies are worried about the rise of medicinal cannabis.
They know that if medicinal cannabis becomes accepted on the national level it will undoubtedly cut into prescription opioid profits. This begs the question: If Big Pharma’s money is so important to so many of our political leaders’ campaigns, aren’t the our “leaders” simply choosing contributions over compassion?