WASHINGTON – The normalization of marijuana use in America has weakened the country’s fight against the opioid crisis, a senior drug policy advisor to President Obama said Monday.
Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, who served as Obama’s chief drug policy advisor in the late 2000s, argued that that’s a clear link between alcohol and marijuana and the abuse of other substances, noting that the vast majority of heroin users have also used marijuana.
“I’m not saying that every marijuana user goes on to use opioids,” Sabet said, adding that this notion has been validated by the National Academy of Sciences. “In fact, most of them do not. But if you’re a heavy user or a regular user of marijuana your chances of using opioids exponentially go up. … I agree that making marijuana more accessible has really hurt us in the fight against all drugs, including opioids.”
Sabet said he agrees with similar sentiments from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has repeatedly stated that the normalization of marijuana use is fueling the opioid and heroin epidemic. Standing before law enforcement officials in Richmond, Va., in March, Sessions shared his blunt take on the legalization of cannabis.
“I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store,” Sessions said. “And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”
George E. Anastassov, a surgeon and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said in an interview on Monday that Sessions needs to get out of the way so that cannabinoids can emerge as a medical alternative to opioids. Anastassov’s company, AXIM Biotechnologies, is competing with several others in developing mainstream alternatives for opioids, which have been held largely responsible for startling overdose death rates in state across the country.
“Sessions is a politician,” Anastassov said of the former Alabama senator. “Sessions is not a physician or a pharmacy or a psychologist, so I think all of this will be supported by clinical data, and there is quite a lot of data available already. The decision should not be based on political views.”
Anastassov said he believes cannabinoids will emerge as a mainstream pain-relief alternative to opioids in the next three to five years. From a clinical standpoint, he argued that there is no definitive linkage between marijuana and opioid use, as the two substances impact two different receptors in the brain. Any suggestion that the cannabis use leads to opioid abuse is an “outlandish statement.”
Sabet said his organization recognizes that there are medicinal benefits to elements found in cannabis, but if that’s the case, the substance should be researched and developed just like any other drug. The debate, he said, has been hijacked through the political process.
“I think there is some evidence that’s compelling that certain components in the marijuana plant will have medicinal value, and those should absolutely be explored,” he said, adding that his organization has called for major research on the matter. “But the idea that we’re going to give someone a joint or a 98 percent concentrated edible or vaporizer and say that that’s medicine doesn’t make any sense.”
Sabet said that he does not agree with harsh penalties for minor marijuana offenses, but he said that companies pushing the substance for profit, particularly those that target youth, should be held accountable.