Editor’s Note: West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda retired from the US Army after 24 years. Ojeda was the lead sponsor to legalize medical cannabis in West Virginia. He is currently running for Congress as a Democrat in West Virginia’s third congressional district. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended the federal policy of non-interference with marijuana-friendly state laws. While controversial for many reasons, this move is first and foremost a significant step backward in our country’s fight against opioid addiction.
According to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, states with medical cannabis laws on average reduced opioid overdose deaths by 24.8%. And each year after the medical cannabis law was passed, the rate of opioid overdose deaths continued to decrease.
Maybe Attorney General Jeff Sessions needs to come to Logan County, West Virginia, where I grew up. Maybe he needs to visit nearby Huntington, West Virginia, a town of nearly 49,000 that’s been dubbed the overdose capital of America. A town where opioid- and heroin-related crime has spiked to such levels that the National Guard is now backing up local law enforcement efforts.
Maybe if he were to open the door to a public restroom and find someone overdosed on the floor, as have residents of Huntington and other West Virginia communities, then Sessions would rethink his disastrous decision to bring down the heavy hand of the federal government on states whose citizens and legislatures have opted to legalize medical cannabis.
In 2016 alone, drug overdoses killed nearly as many Americans as the total amount who died in the Vietnam War, according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum.
As a retired soldier, I know that if any person or nation killed that many Americans, we would pull up our bootstraps and go to war with them. How then can an administration which has rightfully declared opioid addiction a national emergency, strip us of our ability to fight?
Medical cannabis can save lives in a country where opioids continue to take them. It offers patients an alternative to addictive opioids. It also helps combat withdrawal symptoms and could give those struggling with addiction a way to detox without feeling as though they are dying. It could be an effective way to help those who have fallen prey to addiction to rebuild their lives.
Last year, as a freshman state senator, I sponsored legislation to legalize medical cannabis in West Virginia with the hopes that it would help our state combat opioid dependence. I’m a Democrat in a legislature where Republicans have a super-majority, but we were able to get this bill passed and signed by the governor in April 2017. This rare show of bipartisanship didn’t happen because we’re all singing Kumbaya and getting along. It happened because the devastation of addiction is so obvious where we live that my colleagues could not in good conscience deny our citizens a chance to escape this scourge.
When our bill was signed into law, I felt hopeful. We still don’t have nearly enough treatment facilities or nearly enough funding to deal with the overwhelming addiction in West Virginia. But at least medical cannabis could be a fresh line of attack and give the state a better chance at restoring our families and rebuilding our communities.
Sessions’ attack on cannabis patients cynically hurts the very people who so enthusiastically sent this administration to Washington, the ones Democrats and Republicans in West Virginia came together to try to protect.
So I have some friendly advice for Jeff Sessions from the front lines of the addiction crisis. If he’s interested in fighting a war on drugs, then maybe he should look toward Congress, lobbyists and drug distributors. According to a joint report by “60 Minutes” and The Washington Post, a former DEA agent says all three played a role in fueling the spread of the opioid crisis.
Maybe he should find out why pharmaceutical companies thought nothing of shipping 9 million pain pills into Kermit, a tiny town of just 392 people in my congressional district. Maybe he should take a look at the politicians who took big contributions from these same drug makers and then turned the other cheek as the pills flooded in and our towns turned into war zones. Because I can promise you that the true drug problem is not sitting in dispensaries in Colorado.
I have watched as my home state struggles to reverse the crippling effects of opioid addiction and I will not sit quiet while Sessions threatens our efforts to overcome it. He thinks that cannabis is a gateway drug. I agree. It is a gateway to a life free of opioid addiction.