From 1999 to 2017, nearly 400,000 people died from abusing opioids in the United States. In 2017 alone, more than 47,000 people died from opioid-related causes, a third of whom had a legal prescription for opioids. The economic costs of opioid abuse are also deeply concerning, accounting for nearly $80 billion annually from lost productivity in the workplace, ligation fees, administering treatment, and taking preventive measures.
The persistence of opioid abuse across the country has motivated many states to act. The most common go-to policy is enacting prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to collect data on prescriptions from pharmacies and compile reports for physicians.
Every state except Missouri has a PDMP in place. Although health professionals and public health agencies typically hold a favorable view of PDMPs, they may not be effective at combatting opioid abuse. PDMPs for opioids and other potentially dangerous drugs have been around for more than 100 years. Yet, the epidemic persists, overall drug abuse is on the rise, and the fight continues.
PDMPs and other policy programs fine opioid manufacturers for producing beyond a given quota and limit the opioids physicians can prescribe. This can create more problems by driving opioid addicts to illicit markets. A CNN article notes that opioid addicts often seek out heroin when their prescriptions are capped.
Further, PDMPs’ varying guidelines make it more challenging for physicians to treat the nearly 100 million US patients with chronic pain conditions. Physicians expend considerable energy complying with state regulations, which can come at the expense of providing patients with quality care. Nevertheless, physicians must enroll in the PDMPs to be relicensed.
PDMPs are also largely unable to account for prescriptions written from pain clinics. Indeed, many addicts intentionally seek out opioids from such outlets to avoid having their prescription records stored in a database. Often, these transactions go unnoticed even with an effective monitoring system in place.
Unfortunately, policies implemented to curb vices, including drug addiction and abuse, rarely succeed and more often make already concerning problems worse. State and federal policies designed to combat the opioid epidemic are no exception. So, what can be done?
One increasingly promising solution might be better access to marijuana. Historically, medical research finds marijuana can provide effective pain relief with little fear of addiction and other undesirable side effects of chronic use.
Our current research aims to empirically examine the question of whether the introduction of medicinal and recreational marijuana helps curb opioid abuse and death. With several states already considering combating opioid abuse by providing addicts access to medicinal marijuana, our research tackles a timely and crucially important public health question.
Although addictive and potentially harmful, opioids are first and foremost medicine. Instead of tightly controlling this medication through a costly and complex system of policies, we argue searching for a safer (and perhaps equally effective) medicine might be a better option. Current policies sure don’t seem to be working, and the millions of Americans suffering from addiction and the costs of widespread drug abuse need relief quickly.
Meet the Authors
Elisha Kwaku Denkyirah is a graduate research assistant in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University. He holds a master of philosophy degree in agribusiness from the University of Ghana.
Raymond March is a fellow at the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Read his bio.