Could legalizing marijuana help ease the opioid problem that is devastating parts of coal country? The Washington Post raises that possibility. West Virginia is ground zero of one of the worst drug crises in U.S. history. In 2015, 725 people died of overdoses in the state, the highest rate per capita in the country. Last year, that figure grew another 15 percent, reaching a staggering 844 deaths. That averages to one West Virginian dying from an overdose every 11 hours. Eighty-six percent of the state’s overdose deaths in 2016 involved an opioid.
While there are no easy answers to the opioid crisis, a growing body of research suggests that legalizing marijuana could help. More than a dozen states with legal medical marijuana have recorded significant drops in overdose deaths from other drugs, including heroin, found a 2014 study in JAMA: the Journal of the American Medical Association. A 2015 study by Yasmin Hurd at the Behavioral Health System’s Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai found that cannabidiol, a compound in marijuana, minimized cravings for opioids, making it easier for participants to stop using them. Unlike methadone, an opioid that is used in drug treatment to minimize cravings for opioids, cannabidiol was not addictive. Hurd argues that legislators must address this epidemic now. “You can’t wait for all the ducks to be lined up,” she says. “You sometimes have to make bold steps.” The group NORML, which advocates for marijuana legalization, says pot has been West Virginia’s most valuable cash crop for the past 20 years.