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A New Push To Legalize Pot Cites Evidence It Could Curb Opioid Use

On an afternoon in August at the Indiana State Library, a stately limestone building usually home to genealogy conventions or history lectures, the Indiana chapter of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, laid out a very distinctive welcome mat emblazoned with a familiar leafy plant.

This was the Indiana Medical Cannabis Town Hall Meeting — one of several forums NORML held this summer and fall to garner support for the legalization of medical marijuana. This year, their movement has a new focus, highlighting marijuana’s potential to curb the opioid epidemic.

They also have a new unlikely ally.

A crowd of close to 100 (in attire that ranged from tie-dye and cannabis leaf t-shirts to suit jackets and ties, albeit some also featuring that familiar plant) welcomed Republican State Rep. Jim Lucas with claps and cheers.

Lucas — known for his conservative stances on issues such as gun control — is supporting the group’s new push for the legalization of medical marijuana.

“I’m as committed to seeing the decriminalization of medical cannabis as I am about gun rights in this state,” Lucas told the crowd. He received a standing ovation.

Lucas is far from being the only conservative coming around to medical marijuana. Longtime GOP senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, historically an opponent of legalization, has recently come out in support of using it for medical purposes.

“We too often blind ourselves to the medicinal benefits of natural substances like cannabis,” he said in September, mentioning the "possible benefits of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids.”

Among those helping NORML make the link with the opioid epidemic is Thomas Clark, a biologist at Indiana University South Bend, who has presented at some NORML events about his marijuana research. He said the drug is a less dangerous alternative to conventional pain medication, but research has overlooked its benefits.

With marijuana, there are harmful effects, though these tend to be nonfatal, very rarely fatal,” he said. “What previous people have ignored are all these beneficial effects that are emerging in recent studies.”

Clark recently publisheda meta-analysisexamining the results of multiple studies about the effects of marijuana. He found in states that had legalized marijuana, premature deaths — including overdoses — were lower by as much as 25 percent.

Clark argued in addition to serving as an alternative to opioids, cannabis use can also be associated with decreased rates of obesity, diabetes, deaths from traumatic brain injury, use of alcohol and prescription drugs and driving fatalities.

“It’s pretty clear that marijuana, both in medical use and recreational use, basically saved lives,” Clark said.

Other recent research seems to corroborate his claims. A study of marijuana legalization in Colorado published in the American Journal of Public Health showed an association with reduced opioid overdoses.

Chad Bartalone, a paramedic and an adjunct professor of paramedic science at Ivy Tech, also speaks at NORML forums.

Bartalone said being a paramedic and witnessing the opioid epidemic first hand was a huge motivating factor for his becoming an advocate of marijuana as a substitute for opioids. He thinks marijuana could be the game changer for the opioid crisis.

“The research shows that people who have used medical cannabis, particularly for pain, have had [a] subsequent decrease in the amount of opioids they’ve had to take,” Bartalone said.

He pointed to the recent legalization of cannabidiol to treat epilepsy as an indication that the state is ready to move forward toward legalizing another form of the drug.

University of Georgia public policy professor W. David Bradford thinks he may be right. Bradford said the trend is for marijuana policy to move in steps: CBD oil first, then another use, perhaps some recreational uses, until eventually states have to make a decision: decriminalization.

Bradford said he believes every state that hasn’t decriminalized any form of cannabis is going to have to confront the question of legalization at some point. There are currently 29 states that have decriminalized medical marijuana.

“Ultimately, all the states will be on board and I do see a day when we’ll have across the board state-legalized, whole plant cannabis laws,” Bradford said.

Rep. Lucas has said he doesn’t agree with complete legalization of cannabis in Indiana. But he said he will propose a bill to legalize medical use, specifically to fight the opioid crisis. He also believes medical marijuana would benefit veterans as an answer to post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, another Republican, Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, stands in opposition. Writing in an op-ed for the Indianapolis Star, he said legalizing medical marijuana could lead to problems such as car accidents and crime and could be a gateway to harder drugs.

Lucas is ready to challenge him.

“He’s one of those that we’re eventually going to win over, said Lucas. “Or we’re going to override him with facts and science.”

Or with old-fashioned public opinion. Andy Downs of the Downs Center for Indiana Politics said legislators like to hear from the public. When it comes to major policy such as legalizing medical marijuana, public opinion tends to have an impact on legislation.

“And if a huge number of people say ‘x should happen instead of y,’ then it increases the likelihood that ‘x would happen’,” Downs said.

Downs said that having a member of the legislative majority such as Lucas argue for medical marijuana is significant.

“In Jim Lucas, we actually have someone who’s been a member of leadership before in the Republican caucus,” Downs said. “So he brings with him a little extra weight, so to speak.”

Lucas plans to put forth his own legislation this session or support medical marijuana legislation from other members of the legislature. He might not get traction on a bill this coming session, but he said he hopes a shift in public opinion will encourage other representatives to work with him on a bill.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a reporting collaborative focused on public health.