Jeff Sessions' War on Marijuana Could Make the Opioid Crisis Worse

by Monica Hunter-Hart
Getty Images / Alex Wong

Jeff Sessions isn’t just delivering evasive testimony these days; he’s also trying to give the federal government more influence over state marijuana laws. “I believe it would be unwise for Congress to restrict the discretion of the Department to fund particular prosecutions, particularly in the midst of an historic drug epidemic,” he wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders shared by The Washington Post on Tuesday. Of course, this “historic drug epidemic” is an opioid, not marijuana, crisis; and stricter weed laws could actually make the epidemic worse.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded multiple studies that found a correlation between the legalization of medical marijuana and a decrease in prescription opioid misuse and overdose. Weed and opioids can both be used to treat pain, but the latter is far more dangerous; 33,091 people died from an opioid overdose in 2015, a statistic that the The New York Times suggests rose in 2016 and is increasing still further in 2017. On the other hand, we don’t know of anyone who has ever died from a marijuana overdose.

Both Sessions and Sean Spicer have described marijuana as a gateway drug to heroin, but that theory has been thoroughly debunked.

Medical marijuana.

Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

So Sessions is not only wrong to conflate marijuana and opioid use, but also wrong to diagnose any causative relationship between them. If the federal Department of Justice — with Sessions at the helm as Attorney General — is able to interfere more with states’ ability to determine their own weed legalization and enforcement laws, it will probably become more difficult for doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, which will encourage them to turn to opioid prescriptions instead.

Sessions is sabotaging the very cause he claims to promote; but it’s not guaranteed that the legislative branch will listen to him. It will depend on whether Congress includes language that maintains the prohibition on federal intrusion into state marijuana affairs in their Department of Justice appropriations bills.

There’s cause for concern: The Brookings Institution’s John Hudak told The Washington Post that Sessions’ letter could be an effective “scare tactic,” and “could appeal to rank-and-file members or to committee chairs in Congress in ways that could threaten the future of this Amendment.”

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