Opioid Crisis: Is Cannabis Legalization a Good Idea?


Nov. 20 2020, Updated 2:30 p.m. ET

On August 26, an Oklahoma judge ruled against Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). The state’s attorney general filed the lawsuit. According to the lawsuit, the company caused an opioid crisis. The judge fined Johnson & Johnson for $572 million. Thousands of lawsuits will likely go to trial. There are claims that opioid manufacturers including Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Purdue Pharma wrongly marketed opioid painkillers. According to Reuters, Purdue is ready to settle the opioid cases against it for $10 billion–$12 billion.

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US opioid crisis

According to Oklahoma’s lawyers, about 6,000 people have died in the state from opioid overdoses since 2000. The CDC estimates that about 400,000 people died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2017. The number includes deaths from prescription and illegal opioids like heroin. On average 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses, according to the CDC.

Opioids provide relief from moderate to severe pain. However, opioids can be very addictive.

Is marijuana a good replacement?

The FDA classifies most of the opioid drugs as Schedule II controlled substances. Morphine, codeine, oxycodone, and fentanyl are opioid drugs. Although the drugs are legal for medical use, they have high abuse potential.

Currently, cannabis is legal for medical purposes in 33 states and Washington DC. However, cannabis isn’t legal at the federal level in the US. Several presidential candidates support marijuana legalization. The candidates include Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, and Beto O’Rourke. According to surveys, more Americans favor marijuana legalization.

While opioids are Schedule II controlled substances, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. Notably, Schedule 1 controlled substances aren’t approved for medical use. They have high abuse potential.

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Marijuana versus opioids

Many people think that marijuana will help address the opioid crisis. However, a study by researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine found that legalizing medical marijuana won’t reduce opioid deaths. The study revisited a 2014 study. Keith Humphreys is the senior author of the Stanford study. He said, “If you think opening a bunch of dispensaries is going to reduce opioid deaths, you’ll be disappointed.” He also said, “We don’t think cannabis is killing people, but we don’t think it’s saving people.”

However, the authors of the Stanford study think that medical marijuana has benefits. There needs to be more research on marijuana’s effectiveness.

Is marijuana the next opioid?

Notably, there’s a high risk of misusing marijuana even in states where it’s legal. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “The FDA requires carefully conducted studies (clinical trials) in hundreds to thousands of human subjects to determine the benefits and risks of a possible medication. So far, researchers haven’t conducted enough large-scale clinical trials that show that the benefits of the marijuana plant (as opposed to its cannabinoid ingredients) outweigh its risks in patients it’s meant to treat.”

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Scandals and violations

Some cannabis companies have already received scrutiny from the FDA. In July, the FDA sent a warning letter to Curaleaf (CURLF). The company sold products containing CBD (cannabidiol). However, the products weren’t approved. Curaleaf was marketing the products with unsubstantiated claims about treating cancer, Alzheimer’s, pain, pet anxiety, and other conditions. CBD is a chemical compound derived from marijuana.

CannTrust (CTST) disappointed investors. According to Health Canada, CannTrust was growing cannabis in unlicensed rooms at its Ontario facility. CannTrust had to suspend marijuana sales from the facility. On August 12, Health Canada found issues at another CannTrust facility.

Overall, the violations raise doubts about the cannabis industry’s ability to address medical problems with marijuana.

Vaping issues

Also, individuals might use marijuana products for vaping. The CDC is investigating illnesses allegedly caused by vaping. For more information, read Vaping Warning by CDC should Worry Cannabis Players. Tilray (TLRY) is expanding its vaping portfolio under three sub-categories—disposable vapes, interchangeable 510 thread, and cartridges.

Aphria (APHA) collaborated with PAX Labs to provide cannabis vape products for the Pax ERA platform. Aphria expects vapes and concentrates to account for 30% of the Canadian adult-use market by 2021.

Will legalizing marijuana help?

A Gallup survey showed that most Americans support marijuana legalization due to medical benefits. Legalizing marijuana might help curb illegal trade. As we mentioned above, marijuana can be addictive. CBD and THC are the two key components of marijuana. Notably, CBD is a nonpsychoactive compound. CBD doesn’t give the high sensation like THC—the psychoactive compound in marijuana.

Currently, Epidiolex is the only CBD drug approved by the FDA to treat rare and severe forms of epilepsy. Since we don’t have evidence or large clinical trials to establish marijuana’s medical uses, it’s important for state and federal regulatory agencies to carefully control cannabis companies. Regulatory agencies want to avoid another situation like the opioid crisis.


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