The West Virginia solution to a massive increase in opioid related deaths and a decline in the coal industry, one of its biggest markets, may be medical marijuana. There are many states economically suffering and emotionally suffering from the opioid crisis.
Legal marijuana is either considered a potential solution by people, or the cause of the problem. Advocates will argue that legal marijuana will create jobs and tax revenue, as well as being a means of weaning addicts. Opponents argue that marijuana use makes people less productive and hurts the economy over the long term, and that addicts are just replacing one dependence for another when they begin using medical cannabis. Where do you stand?
Reliable estimates of the size of the marijuana market in West Virginia are hard to come by. According to the group NORML, which advocates for marijuana legalization, pot has been West Virginia’s most valuable cash crop for the past 20 years.
Lately, however, marijuana has been overshadowed by opioids, which are devastating parts of coal country. In Mingo County, where Johnsie lives, a single pharmacy pumped out 9 million hydrocodone pills over just two years, according to a 2016 investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. That was enough for every man, woman and child in the area to have 350 of them. Hydrocodone was part of a new generation of opioids that pharmaceutical companies introduced in the United States in the past two decades and heavily marketed to doctors as posing minimal risk for addiction. That, of course, wasn’t true, and as government officials cracked down on prescription opioids, they became prohibitively expensive, pushing addicts in West Virginia and elsewhere toward illegal substitutes, including heroin, which ran about a third the price.
The Mountain State is now ground zero of one of the worst drug crises in our nation’s history. In 2015, 725 people died of overdoses in the state, the highest rate per capita in the country. Last year, that figure grew another 15 percent, reaching a staggering 844 deaths. That averages to one West Virginian dying from an overdose every 11 hours. Eighty-six percent of the state’s overdose deaths in 2016 involved an opioid.
While there are no easy answers to the opioid crisis, a growing body of research suggests that legalizing marijuana could help. More than a dozen states with legal medical marijuana have recorded significant drops in overdose deaths from other drugs, including heroin, according to a 2014 study in JAMA: the Journal of the American Medical Association. A 2015 pilot study by Yasmin Hurd at the Behavioral Health System’s Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai found that cannabidiol, a compound in marijuana, minimized cravings for opioids, making it easier for participants to stop using them. And unlike methadone, an opioid that is used in drug treatment to minimize cravings for opioids, cannabidiol was not addictive. Hurd is pursuing further research but argues that legislators must address this epidemic now. “You can’t wait for all the ducks to be lined up,” she says. “You sometimes have to make bold steps.”
Attempts to decriminalize marijuana in West Virginia date to at least 2010, but for years no bills made it out of committee. As of 2015, the year of Johnsie’s arrest, stalwarts in the Republican-dominated legislature still could not bring themselves to legalize marijuana for medical use. But younger lawmakers would not let the issue go.
One of the leading proponents of loosening restrictions on marijuana in West Virginia is Democratic state Del. Mike Pushkin, who represents parts of Charleston and its surrounding areas. Pushkin is an unconventional pol — a cabdriver and folk musician who has spoken about his own struggles with addiction. He once told the Charleston Gazette-Mail how he spent 11 years living from crisis to crisis. “I’m sure there were times that my mother would have thought it more likely she would be attending my funeral than she would be attending my swearing-in at the Capitol,” he said.
It took a spiritual awakening to get his addiction under control. To stay sober, he told me, he volunteers at detox facilities and talks to addicts in area jails. This experience informs his policy positions. He’s sure West Virginia can’t arrest its way out of this drug crisis. And he has pushed his colleagues to consider marijuana in a new light. “While marijuana is described as a gateway drug, that’s not proven,” he says. “What is proven is that a lot of people who are prescribed painkillers get hooked on heroin.”
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