Pubdate: Sun, 16 Jul 2017
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 2017 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Author: David Crowley


America's opioid epidemic is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of people. From 2000 to 2015, over half-a-million Americans
died of opioid abuse and overdose. Ninety-one Americans die every
single day for the same reasons.

While illegal drugs like heroin have contributed greatly to this
epidemic, prescription opioids are the leading cause of overdose and
death for Americans suffering from opioid addiction.

Since 1999, the amount of prescribed opioids in the United States has
nearly quadrupled without a meaningful change in the actual amount of
pain that Americans report to their doctors. In Wisconsin, the rate of
opioid-related deaths has nearly doubled between 2006 and 2015, from
5.9 deaths per 100,000 residents to 10.7 deaths per 100,000.

This is a crisis. Not only for the people of Wisconsin, but for the
country at large. Thankfully, the opioid crisis is being taken
seriously by politicians from both sides of the aisle and steps are
being taken to address the problem. However, many government officials
and advocates are not considering all possibilities for solutions to
this problem.

I believe that in order to best combat the rising death toll and human
costs associated with the opioid crisis, we must fully legalize
marijuana use. While many states have legalized medical marijuana,
Wisconsin and other states should move toward full legalization in
order to best combat the opioid epidemic. In Wisconsin, Rep. Melissa
Sargent recently introduced legislation that would fully legalize and
regulate marijuana, and I fully support her efforts moving forward.

Marijuana use has been linked to a reduction in reported pain and a
reduction in addictive opioid prescriptions across the country.
According to an extensive study performed by University of California
Public Health Professor Yuyan Shi and published in the Drug and
Alcohol Dependence report, states that have legalized medical
marijuana have seen a significant drop in opioid-related deaths and
hospitalizations. The study showed that between 1997 and 2014, states
that legalized medical marijuana experienced, on average, a 23% drop
in opioid-related hospitalizations. The data is clear: medical
marijuana works as an effective alternative to addictive opioid

However, legalization of medical marijuana does not address another
problem: large pharmaceutical companies selling addictive opioid pain
relievers, which are then prescribed to communities of color that are
more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses. Full
legalization of marijuana would not only help fight prescription drug
abuse but also drastically decrease incarcerations in black
communities. Consequently, it would provide benefits to the people of
Wisconsin rather than to drug company CEOs.

Currently, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug -- on the same
level as heroin. This, despite the fact that marijuana use is provably
safer, not addictive and provides pain relief for suffering
Wisconsinites. We know that medical marijuana has decreased
hospitalizations and deaths related to opioid abuse. More than 33,000
U.S. citizens died in 2015 from opioid-related overdoses, but
marijuana has not been linked to a single fatal overdose.

In states such as Colorado, legal, regulated marijuana dispensaries
have contributed greatly to the economic health of the state. In 2016,
Colorado made upwards of $1 billion in legal marijuana sales. The
state government collected nearly $150 million in taxes, a third of
which were earmarked for school projects across the state. Think of
what Wisconsin could do for its children, its schools and its
communities with that much extra money. If marijuana were to be
legalized in Wisconsin, I would support putting that extra revenue
toward community projects, school funding and a statewide fund that
would provide monetary support to various projects across all 72 of
Wisconsin's counties.

Every single day, 1,000 people are treated in hospitals around the
country for improper use of prescription opioids. This is a problem
that requires immediate action. Will legalizing marijuana solve the
opioid crisis by itself? Of course not. There is no "one size fits
all" solution to such a wide-reaching problem. However, the health and
economic benefits of legalized marijuana have been made clear in
states that have legalized it. Not taking these first steps to
effectively combat the problem of opioid addiction now will only make
it worse in the future.

For the good of Wisconsin, we must legalize marijuana. To do otherwise
in the face of in-depth research and data would be a disservice to
Wisconsinites and a betrayal of our promise to work for the health and
safety of our constituents.

Rep. David Crowley represents the 17th Assembly District in the city
of Milwaukee.
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