Maine medical marijuana industry seeking to cash in on the heroin epidemic

It has been heartening to see all of the efforts and initiatives start up across Maine to address the heroin crisis.  Police departments and sheriff’s departments are looking to start up referral and diversion programs to get people suffering into treatment.  Public health coalitions are setting up forums to put together plans to implement in their communities.  Just this month I was appointed co chair of the Prevention and Harm Reduction Task Force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative launched by U.S. Attorney Thomas Delehanty.  The work that is being done amongst the three task forces is impressive and I am confident will result in effective strategies that will get measurable results.  In short, there are a lot of great people on the ground putting plans into action.

Then there is the marijuana industry in Maine. It is clear some are seeing the heroin epidemic as an opportunity to grow their business. In a post to the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine Facebook page, one King Bishop announces that Senator Eric Brakey was providing an opportunity for the medical marijuana industry to write language to insert into one of the heroin emergency bills to have opiate addiction added as an allowable condition for medical marijuana.  (More on why that would be a really bad idea later in this article) Fortunately, LD 1537 passed before such language was able to be offered.

That brings us to an op-ed that appears in today’s Press Herald authored by Wellness Connection founder, and Bangor Daily News blogger, Becky DeKeuster.  Wellness Connection operates four of the eight dispensaries in Maine.  Wellness Connection was also a supporter of Representative Mark Dion’s bill from last year, LD 1401, that would have legalized recreational marijuana and would have given preference to the dispensaries when it came to licensing and starting up recreational pot shops. I think it is safe to say that any policy change that would result in more people being able to get marijuana certifications would grow the bottom line for the dispensaries.

In that context, it then comes as little surprise that DeKeuster advocates in her Op-Ed for opiate addiction to be added as an allowable condition under Maine’s Medical Marijuana Program. If this sounds familiar, it should. The marijuana industry has already taken a pass at adding opiate addiction as an allowable condition in the 126th Legislature through LD 1062. Fortunately, the Health and Human Services Committee stripped out that condition before passing the bill. Unfortunately that bill did pass allowing post-traumatic stress disorder to be added to the list despite the lack of credible science, and in spite of the science that says marijuana can worsen PTSD.

To be frank about it, I find this posturing from the industry egregious and grotesque. To be clear, marijuana industry elements in Maine aren’t the only ones to try to sell snake oil on the back of a lethal public health crisis. Current Libertarian candidate for President, and former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson proposed marijuana as a cure for Ebola. Oh by the way, the marijuana would come from his company.

Props to Fox Business’ Stuart Varney for calling Johnson out for what he is, a snake oil salesman looking to take advantage of dying Ebola patients. Marijuana legalization advocates will continue to make their case for why recreational marijuana should be legalized.  That’s fine, that’s part of our democratic process in the U.S. and here in Maine. But to sell marijuana as a medicine to people in desperation, based on junk science (that’s being charitable), goes beyond the pale. What DeKeuster and others propose would make the heroin situation worse, not better. It’s essentially trading one addiction for another, instead of an approach of moving away from addictive substances. National data is clear that marijuana addiction increases (not decreases) the risk of developing a heroin addiction. The risk for marijuana is actually higher than the risk associated with alcohol dependency.

heroin addiciton stats

Source: National Survey on Drug Use and Health 2013-2014

Look, this heroin crisis is all hands on deck. We need as many resources and people as possible working together to find solutions and to get them into motion. Despite my issues with the medical marijuana program, I think we should take advantage and look at how we can use that funding to help decrease addiction and increase access to treatment. (No that doesn’t mean we should legalize marijuana) I, personally, would also advocate raising alcohol and tobacco taxes to help fund our response to addiction. Pharmaceutical companies should also have some skin in the game as they certainly have contributed to this public health crisis.  However, the legal drug industries need to leave the solutions to the experts and to communities, instead of looking for opportunities to cash in.

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

About Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C

Scott M. Gagnon, MPP, PS-C is a Certified Prevention Specialist and is the Director of Operations at AdCare Educational Institute of Maine, Inc. He currently serves on the Maine Substance Abuse Services Commission as well as the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, Center for Substance Abuse Prevention National Advisory Council. Scott volunteers as the Chair of the marijuana policy education and advocacy group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Maine and is the current Board President of the Maine Council on Problem Gambling. Scott also serves as a Co-chair of the Prevention & Harm Reduction task force of the Maine Opiate Collaborative, the effort convened by U.S. Attorney Thomas E Delahanty, II to address Maine's growing opiate and addiction crisis. Scott is the recipient of the 2015 Maine Public Health Association's Ruth S. Shaper Memorial Award and 2015 Healthy Androscoggin Will Bartlett Award and is also the 2013 recipient of the Maine Alliance to Prevent Substance Abuse Prevention Award.