I finished Doug Fine’s Too High to Fail: Cannabis and the New Green Revolution and started to wonder about some of the issues surrounding the legal status of cannabis in the United States. A person would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that the current “war on drugs” is anything short of a failure on several levels. Therefore, why do we continue to perpetuate this conflict?
Because you cannot grow OxyContin in your backyard, but you could grow cannabis.
In the United State, painkillers are big business. In 2012, the last year for which full year statistics are available, prescription painkillers were some of the biggest drugs in terms of sales. How big? Cymbalta, a drug used to treat a variety of pain symptoms, had approximately ~$4.5 billion in sales. OxyContin sales were worth ~$2.7 billion. Celebrex, a drug to treat pain primarily associated with arthritis, had ~$1.9 billion in sales. Remember, Celebrex is the same drug that had a whole host of side effects that the maker, Pfizer, failed to disclose to recipients. And people say you do not know what you are getting when you buy medicinal marijuana. These sales figures were obtained from Drugs.com.
For anyone who touts the ills of marijuana consumption as a reason to continue prohibition as them why the same argument does not apply to prescription painkillers? The numbers and stories behind the abuse of prescription painkillers is astounding. According to a report compiled by the Trust for America’s Health, prescription painkiller sales per capita quadrupled from 1999-2010. A corresponding quadrupling of the number of fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers occurred over the same period.
Prescription painkillers are not the only problem child in the world of prescription drugs. Anti-anxiety and insomnia medications are rife with problems. The same report from the Trust for America’s Health states that the number of emergency room visits for misuse doubled from 2004 to 2011 with anti-anxiety and insomnia drugs being the most common culprits.
Perhaps most stunning is that the leading cause of injury death in the United States—as opposed to a medical condition like a heart attack—is drug poisoning. In 2009, drug poisoning surpassed traffic deaths as the leading cause of injury death. The majority of those deaths came from prescription drugs as opposed to illicit “street” drugs. Where is the outrage? Again, follow the money.
Prescription drugs are big business in the United States. How big? According to data available from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation prescription drug retail sales through pharmacies totaled over $227 billion dollars.
No one is suggesting that cannabis can be a treatment for all ailments. Anyone who would suggest that you should medicate with cannabis to treat an infection is engaging in quackery akin to the worst snake oil salesmen of the patent medicine era. However, for certain conditions cannabis can be a viable treatment.
I do not believe that there is a nefarious plot afoot by big pharma to perpetuate the prohibition of medicinal marijuana. However, I do believe that these companies have constructed a regulatory and legislative regime that protects their products with insane barriers to entry. Anyone in business would be envious to have their markets protected by the myriad layers of laws, regulations, approving bodies, licensing organizations, etc. that protect prescription drugs. These structures are in place, notionally, to protect the patient from bad medicine but at the same time it protects the players on the inside from a credible alternative.