Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden this week. Her message: work with other federal agencies to investigate whether cannabis can help turn around the nation’s disastrous opioid epidemic.
Although she’s never openly embraced legalization, cannabis advocates have an ally in Warren. Last July, Warren led a group of eight Democratic Senators calling on those agencies to coordinate research on medical marijuana. The heads of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the Drug Enforcement Agency replied in October.
The response, which also included in-person staff briefings, “failed to answer key substantive questions.” Thus, seven weeks ago, Warren and her seven compatriots followed up with those agencies requesting more specific responses, and this week the Massachusetts progressive asked the CDC to help the effort.
“Explore every opportunity and tool available,” to combat the opioid crisis, urged Warren’s letter. Specifically, she asked the agency to study “the use, uptake and effectiveness of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for pain treatment in states where it is legal” as well as “the impact of the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana on opioid overdose deaths.”
In her own state alone, noted Warren, data showed a 65 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths between 2012 and 2014. “Fill the gap in our knowledge” in how cannabis can help, she urged CDC Director Frieden.
The group of senators remains dissatisfied with the federal response on details for how marijuana will become easier to research.
For one thing, the DEA told Senators in a staff briefing that the National Institute on Drug Abuse research supply stranglehold is not a barrier. Not true, says Warren, as that explanation “only applied to one strain of marijuana and does not reflect feedback we have heard from researchers in our states.”
Pressing on NIDA, Warren and the other senators requested specific information about its stock of strains.
The letter to the HHS, DEA and ONDCP also requested the Food and Drug Administration’s marijuana rescheduling analysis and recommendation to the DEA be released, as well as more specific information on both interagency and federal-state health agency coordination efforts.
Surveillance and epidemiological studies help researchers understand patterns; the senators want better answers there too. Warren wants HHS agencies like the National Institutes of Health and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to coordinate. As the opiate crisis spikes, Warren is pressing all agencies for answers. Now it’s the CDC’s turn to get a push.
“I strongly urge you to finalize the CDC Guidelines for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain as soon as possible,” read Monday’s letter. If the CDC begins telling doctors that cannabis can be an alternative to opioid painkiller overdose deaths, it would be a big deal.
Americans comprise 75 percent of worldwide consumption of opioid painkillers despite making up only 5 percent of the world’s population. Even hardline cannabis prohibitionists like Republican presidential candidates Chris Christie and Ted Cruz can tell moving stories of personal loss over opioid addiction.
Warren has come a long way herself. In 2011, Marijuana Policy Project knocked then-candidate Warren for “flunking” the marijuana question. Asked if she supported legalizing and regulating marijuana, she simply said “no.” The opioid crisis has been a key factor in opening previously closed minds.
For Warren, an important force in national Democratic politics for the foreseeable future, prohibition forces an absurd contrast between punishment for financial crimes and those for cannabis possession. “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail, but a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested,” she told Netroots Nation in 2014. “The game is rigged!”
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