The majority of states in the U.S. now authorize the production and dispensing of medical marijuana to qualified patients. Nonetheless, federal law continues to define the cannabis plant as a schedule I controlled substance “with no currently accepted use in the United States.” This is an untenable, seemingly flat-Earth position that has no basis in modern reality.
As acknowledged by the esteemed National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in 2017 following an exhaustive review of over 10,000 scientific studies, “There is conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis and cannabinoids are effective for the treatment of chronic pain, in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and for improving patient reported multiple sclerosis spasticity.”
A search on the PubMed.gov website today using the key word «marijuana» yields over 29,000 scientific papers referencing the plant or its constituents. This totality of peer-reviewed research is far greater than that which exists for most conventional pharmaceuticals, such oxycodone, ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
Moreover, majorities of doctors and patients support legal access to medical cannabis. According to a 2018 nationwide Quinnipiac Poll, 91 percent of voters say that marijuana ought to be legal for medical purposes. An estimated 70 percent of practicing physicians agree with this position, according to survey data compiled by WebMD. A more recent survey of over 1,500 physicians in 12 specialties reported that 80 percent of respondents believed that “medical marijuana should be legalized nationally.”
Thirty-three states and Washington, D.C. (as well as the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and Guam) permit physicians to recommend marijuana therapy. Some of these state-sanctioned programs have now been in place for more than two decades. Marijuana medicalization has not led to increased teen marijuana use or access, according to dozens of peer-reviewed studies. Nor has it adversely impacted traffic safety.
According to data published in the «American Journal of Public Health, «[O]n average, medical marijuana law states had lower traffic fatality rates than non-MML (medical marijuana law) states. …. Medical marijuana laws are associated with reductions in traffic fatalities, particularly pronounced among those aged 25 to 44 years.” To date, no state government has ever repealed a medical marijuana legalization law.
Numerous studies further conclude that providing legal cannabis access mitigates opioid abuse and mortality. Data published in The American Journal of Public Health reports a 6.5 percent decrease in monthly opioid deaths in Colorado following the enactment of retail cannabis sales.
Data published in JAMA Internal Medicine reports that medical cannabis legalization is associated with year-over-year declines in overall opioid-related mortality, including heroin overdose deaths, by as much as 33 percent.
Separate data similarly identifies reductions in patients’ use of benzodiazepines — a class of anti-anxiety drugs responsible for over 11,500 overdose deaths in 2017 — following legalization. Other studies have reported that overall rates of all prescription drug spending declines following the enactment of medical cannabis access.
Congress must no longer hide their collective heads in the sand. The available evidence is clear, consistent and overwhelming. It is time that leadership in both political parties come together and move expeditiously to amend federal law in manner that rightfully recognizes cannabis as an efficacious product that is objectively safer than the litany of pharmaceutical and recreational substances it could readily replace.
Paul Armentano is the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? and the author of the book, The Citizen’s Guide to State-By-State Marijuana Laws.