The devastation of the opiate epidemic cannot be understated, nor can the urgency of doing something — anything — to alleviate its effects.
Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi understand the gravity of this crisis, working with law enforcement, the Legislature and other stakeholders to attack the insidious threat to public health and safety from multiple fronts.
Freshman Rep. Nick Duran gets it as well, filing a bill to modernize our prescription drug monitoring program to stave off abuses. Duran’s comprehension of this issue is sadly borne from the tragic death of his brother-in-law, David.
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David was a friend of mine, too. He ran the statewide grassroots campaign for the 2014 medical marijuana initiative, and managed efforts to collect thousands of petitions to put medical marijuana back on the ballot in 2016. He had been clean and sober for years when he relapsed last year. Fentanyl took his life.
Opiate overdose deaths rose by 72.2 percent from 2014 to 2015, the most recent two years for which data is available. There is no one who believes that 2016 — the year David died — will be any improvement.
Addiction is a disease, like cancer, or AIDS, or influenza. It cannot be eliminated wholesale, but we can and must take steps to obviate its human impacts.
This sorrowful state of affairs begs the question of why the Legislature and Gov. Scott are not acting more swiftly and forcefully to implement the medical marijuana law that 71 percent of Floridians approved last fall?
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research found that in states that had enacted medical marijuana laws from 1999-2010, opiate overdose deaths fell by an average of 25 percent vs. states where medical marijuana remained illegal. On that basis, more than 800 lives could have been spared in 2015.
Authors of the Johns Hopkins study point out they haven’t established a direct link between medical marijuana laws and the decrease in deaths. But the correlation is too strong to ignore. It also tracks with anecdotal reports.
I’ve been a medical marijuana advocate for more than four years. Throughout that time, I’ve spoken with innumerable people throughout Florida who give medical marijuana the primary credit for saving their lives: People who clawed their way back from an addiction to prescription painkillers by using marijuana. Others who must still take narcotics to manage their suffering, but who take far less as a result of having access to marijuana. Still others who chose to never swallow that first OxyContin or Percocet, relying on marijuana at the outset, fearing even a flirtation with opiate dependence.
During last year’s campaign for medical marijuana, which I managed, we ran a television ad featuring Miami Beach physician Dr. Jeffrey Kamlet. A specialist in pain management and addiction medicine, and twice past president of the Florida Society of Addiction Medicine, Kamlet pleaded with viewers to approve Amendment 2 so that he could have the option of recommending marijuana, instead of narcotics with addictive and lethal potentials, to his patients.
It is such an established cliché that the Chinese word for “crisis” is the same as the word for “opportunity.” With medical marijuana, though, the opportunity isn’t being presented as a result of the opiate crisis, but because of the popular will of 71 percent of Florida voters.
Legislators should seize it nonetheless.
Here is what we know: Opiate overdoses claimed 3,228 lives in Florida in 2015; marijuana has never taken a life by overdose, in thousands of years of human use; data suggests — but does not prove a direct link — that medical marijuana might save countless lives from opiate overdose.
Acting swiftly to implement medical marijuana doesn’t even necessitate political courage — it’s mandated by the state Constitution. All state lawmakers have to do to save lives is to do their jobs.
Ben Pollara is the executive director for Florida for Care.