Sean Spicer linked legal marijuana to the opioid crisis. He couldn't have been more wrong.


On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer predicted "greater enforcement" of the federal law against marijuana use — even in states that have voted overwhelmingly to legalize it. 

That announcement wasn't so shocking in itself. Many see the Justice Department under newly sworn-in attorney general Jeff Sessions as poised to attack the expanding weed industry. What really threw drug policy experts for a loop was the casual way in which Spicer seemed to link marijuana to the current U.S. opioid epidemic, which is responsible for thousands of deaths.

"When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country," Spicer said, "the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people. There's a federal law that we need to abide by when it comes to recreational marijuana and other drugs of that nature."  

Let's break that statement down to all its incorrect assumptions.

Sorry, Spicer. Legalizing marijuana doesn't encourage people to start using it.

Much of the hand-wringing about legalizing marijuana sounds like the refrain from any other moral panic: "Won't somebody think of the children?" But because the average age of a first-time user is around 16 — and the concerns about marijuana's effects on the adolescent brain — it's a fair question.    

Well, it seems the youth are doing just fine in states where weed is regulated for sale. In a 2015 study published by the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, 24 years of data revealed "strongest empirical evidence yet that medical marijuana laws do not account for increased use of marijuana in U.S. adolescents." This echoed a 2012 study examining teen marijuana use over a similar period, which concluded that even while weed use was on the rise among adolescents nationally, it stayed essentially flat for kids in legal-marijuana states.

If legalizing weed doesn't prompt our impressionable youth to take up the stuff, then how can anybody say these states are "encouraging" use?

And no, marijuana isn't a "gateway" drug.

Implicit in Spicer's comment is the flawed and largely discredited notion that using marijuana will lead people down a path to harder, more addictive drugs. If you ever took a DARE class, you remember the "gateway drug" myth.

Thing is, it's just not true that weed sets you on this slippery slope. "The majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, 'harder' substances," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Back in 1999, researchers with the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, tasked by Congress to weigh the potential downsides of medical marijuana, put it in even plainer terms: "There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs."  

Even Sessions' predecessor, attorney general Loretta Lynch, is on the record as saying marijuana isn't a gateway drug — specifically with regard to opioid abuse. "When we talk about heroin addiction, we usually ... are talking about individuals that started out with a prescription drug problem, and then because they need more and more, they turn to heroin," she said at a town hall meeting in Richmond, Kentucky, in September 2016. "It isn't so much that marijuana is the step right before using prescription drugs or opioids."

She went on to add, "It's not as though we are seeing that marijuana is a specific gateway."  

Marijuana and opioids are not comparable drugs.

On the previous two points, Spicer may simply be uninformed. But when it comes to lumping together "recreational marijuana" with prescription painkillers, heroin and "other drugs of that nature," he's either disingenuous or maliciously ignorant.

Here are the facts: U.S. drug overdose deaths "nearly tripled" between 1999 and 2014. In that last year, some 28,647 of those deaths (more than 60%) involved an opioid. In 2015, more than 33,000 people died of an opioid overdose — more than in any other year on record — with nearly half of those deaths involving a prescription opioid.

Marijuana, though, would require "1,000 times the effective dose to cause death." The National Institute on Drug Abuse doesn't even bother to track fatal weed overdoses because they don't happen. The DEA's fact sheet on the drug states, "no death from overdose of marijuana has been reported." Weed can lead to impaired driving and other behaviors that carry the risk of death, but not from its toxicity, and many who go to the emergency room after ingesting too much cannabis are simply in the throes of a panic attack.

To describe the overall impact of marijuana and opioids on our national health as roughly equivalent is dangerous, unscientific nonsense.

Medical marijuana may actually be a solution for opioid addicts.

Not only did Spicer denigrate legal marijuana by likening it to opioids, he also undermined the growing interest in its potential for alleviating the crisis.

Since marijuana is often prescribed for chronic pain, some have come to see it as a safer alternative to the prescription painkillers people are getting addicted to. Just this week, dozens of New Jersey citizens showed up for the state's Medical Marijuana Review Panel to demand a legal weed alternative to opioids. One attendee, Ricardo Rivera, testified that his sister was first prescribed opioid painkillers after a surgery when she was 12, overdosed by age 14 and finally died from heroin abuse when she was 31.

There is even evidence, according to people like Dr. Dustin Sulak, a licensed osteopathic physician in Maine, that medical marijuana can be used in combination with opioid painkillers to mitigate abuse. Of the patients who took both for their pain, he said in an interview with Time, a majority either reduced their opioid intake or quit opioids altogether — a stark difference from those patients who come back repeatedly seeking higher opioid dosages as their tolerance increases.

All in all, then, Spicer's understanding of the relationship between marijuana legalization and the opioid epidemic is about as wrong as any of the "alternative facts" coming out of this White House. And if he believes that the problem of drug overdoses is a legitimate pretext for a crackdown on weed, it's certainly not a view stemmed from reason or research.