KNOXVILLE - As state lawmakers consider introducing a bill to allow medical marijuana use in Tennessee, a former assistant district attorney hopes that marijuana legalization will lead to fewer people dying from opioid overdoses.
"States that have legalized medical marijuana have seen on average a 25 percent decrease in opioid abuse and death rates, and that's huge. We're not seeing that anywhere supply is being focused on," said former District 13 assistant district attorney Allison Watson, citing a 2014 study.
However, some members of law enforcement take issue with the studies.
"The studies - especially the RAND study - the years they looked at most specifically were 2010 to 2013. We didn't even have a problem them," said Joel Reece, Tennessee director for the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. "Fentanyl had not been introduced into the market then. It was mainly a pill issue then, now it's morphed into a pill, heroin and fentanyl issue."
From 2010 to 2015 the Tennessee death rate due to overdoses has risen steadily. The state has tried to combat the epidemic by limiting over-prescribing opiate painkillers like oxycodone and codeine.
"Once we realized we have a crisis here, we immediately started trying to limit the supply of opiods," Watson said. "You cannot just fight supply. You have to be very truthful and smart on the front end to put in controls on supply, but once you're in a crisis situation, cutting supply only makes the problem worse, and as far as opioids go, much deadlier. You have to focus on demand."
She says that people addicted to pain pills turned to street heroin once they could no longer easily get pills from their doctor.
"There are two big lessons that history has taught us when we've tried this before. Number one - harsher laws promote the spread of more potent and dangerous drugs. Small quantities are easily hidden and smuggled, but those small quantities pack a lot of punch. And there's not a better example than alcohol prohibition," Watson said. "The beer and wine that most people preferred, well once it was prohibited we saw a huge increase in the use and sale of hard liquor."
Reece disagrees that improved monitoring of legally prescribed pills leads to an increase in the illegal market.
However, both Watson and Reece agree that the best way to combat the opioid epidemic is with proactive measures, though the two differ on which methods are most effective.
The AHIDTA uses what Reece calls a three-legged stool approach of education, prevention and treatment.
As part of its efforts, the AHIDTA uses a film created by the FBI and DEA to give students a better look into how drug use can change their life. "Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict" chronicles the lives of a handful opiate addicts. Some addicts died during the making of the film.
Watson believes that a medical approach with maintenance therapy is the best for solving the opiate addiction problem.
Methadone and buprenorphine clinics provide medication-based therapy. Methadone suppresses withdrawal symptons for 24 to 36 hours and can helps an opiate addict go through a day without needing to turn to heroin or pain pills.
Ultimately, whether or not Tennessee's legislature approves medical marijuana in any capacity is still to be determined.
"Nobody wants to be in the dark ages on this stuff, but do it the right way, run it through the FDA. The American Medical Association is still against it," Reece said. "And who knows more about this than physicians? No one, I would think. And if it's still their opinion that it's not a good idea, I certainly can't argue with that."
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