Legalizing Marijuana Could Help Curb Arizona's Opioid Epidemic; Will Ducey Consider It?

Arizona Department of Health
Monday morning, Governor Doug Ducey declared a statewide health emergency in response to the growing number of deaths resulting from opioid abuse.

The statistics cited in the announcement are alarming: According to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services, there were 790 deaths resulting from opioid use in 2016, which averages out to two per day. That represents a 74 percent increase since 2012.

And of all the drug overdoses that took place last year, more than half involved the use of opioids — a category that includes heroin, prescription painkillers, and synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

Ducey's declaration of emergency calls for "enhanced surveillance" to track the epidemic, tightening the rules that govern doctors' ability to prescribe opioids, and training law enforcement officers to administer Naloxone to people who have overdosed.

One thing it doesn't mention: Legalizing marijuana could potentially help cut down on opioid abuse.

Numerous studies have found that people in states where medical marijuana is legal — including Arizona — are statistically less likely to get hooked on prescription painkillers in the first place, which can be potentially lethal and, in many cases, leads to heroin use.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the rate of opioid overdose deaths decreased substantially in states that passed laws legalizing medical marijuana, and was 25 percent lower, on average, than in states where all forms of marijuana use are illegal.

That may explain why Arizona has fared comparatively better than some other states. Even though the total number of deaths has gone up, Arizona has simultaneously fallen from sixth to 15th place when it comes to states with the largest number of deaths resulting from drug overdoses.

Meanwhile, there's also a growing body of evidence suggesting that, in addition to providing a less-addictive alternative to prescription painkillers, cannabis can be an "exit drug," helping people who are already addicted to opioids to kick their habits.

So why not make it accessible to everybody, not just those with medical-marijuana cards?

"If Ducey truly cared about the opioid epidemic, he would reverse his marijuana policy," says Mikel Weisser, the state director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 

Representatives for Ducey couldn't immediately be reached for comment on Monday. But Weisser says that given Ducey's record, which includes raising money to defeat an initiative which would have legalized marijuana in the state, it seems unlikely that the governor will change his stance.

On April 20 — "the stoner's holiday," Weisser points out — Ducey was the keynote speaker for the annual conference hosted by Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which lobbies against legalization.

The governor's biography in the official program describes him as "a tireless advocate of sound marijuana policies" and notes that he "helped defeat Arizona's proposed legalization measure, Proposition 205, in 2016."

Interestingly, the state's health director, Dr. Cara Christ, seems to have a different perspective.

In an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times last week
, Christ, a Ducey appointee, said that getting doctors to find alternative solutions for patients with chronic pain — that is, other than prescribing them addictive painkillers — could help prevent the epidemic from growing larger.

Asked if medical marijuana could be one of those alternatives, she avoided directly contradicting her boss, responding, “If patients are interested, that’s something they should talk with their health care provider about.”

Dr. Sue Sisley, a prominent marijuana researcher, says she'd like to see the state's health department use the $30 million generated in tax revenue from medical marijuana last year to study whether cannabis could play a role in combatting the opioid epidemic.

"We're lacking real control trials," she says. "I'm seeing a mountain of anecdotal evidence showing that cannabis can function as substitution therapy [for people who are addicted to opioids], but we need control trials to really back that up." 

It's possible that further clinical studies may show that cannabis isn't all that helpful to people who are trying to recover from opioid addictions, Sisley says. But since the government has been unwilling to fund those studies, no one knows for sure.

"It may show all the things that Doug Ducey has been professing — that it’s harmful and dangerous," she says. "I don't know why he's afraid of the research."