Editorial: Wolf opioid declaration a step in the right direction

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in Las Vegas outside City Hall in Philadelphia in October. (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/TNS)

Yesterday, Gov. Tom Wolf confirmed something we all already know to be true: Pennsylvania is in the midst of a drug abuse crisis.

In a statement released from Wolf’s office, the governor added Pennsylvania to a list eight other states that have already declared states of emergency over rampant opioid and heroin addiction. Wolf said Pennsylvania’s state government hadn’t done enough to fight the problem.

“While we have made progress in combating the heroin and opioid abuse crisis and drastically expanded Pennsylvania’s response, we are still losing far too many Pennsylvanians,” he said. “I am taking this step to protect Pennsylvanians from this looming public health crisis.”

Wolf is unquestionably right that Wednesday’s declaration is a step in the right direction for the Commonwealth and its citizens. Increased acknowledgment of the problem will open several more avenues to fight the opioid addiction epidemic. Government agencies will be allowed to work together to coordinate effective response strategies, and first responders will be given easier access to naloxone and other overdose antidotes.

But it’s imperative that the Commonwealth doesn’t stop here. For a state like Pennsylvania — where a 2017 report from Pitt’s School of Pharmacy showed a drug overdose-related death rate in 2016 more than twice the national average — more action is nothing short of imperative.

One relatively straightforward step to combat the opiate abuse crisis could be to broaden access to medicinal cannabis in Pennsylvania. According to a 2014 study from JAMA Internal Medicine, states with medical marijuana laws saw an average of one-fourth fewer opioid-related deaths than states without them. Another 2015 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed access to medical marijuana dispensaries in a state was correlated with decreases of 15 to 35 percent in substance abuse cases.

Of course, Pennsylvania has already begun the process of legalizing some forms of medical marijuana — although some, including the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, seem to support the federal government’s recent efforts to slow that progress. But if Pennsylvania is really serious about moving forward and solving this emergency, it’ll move forward rather than backward.

Whether that move forward includes more liberalization of cannabis laws or not isn’t obvious. After all, a 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health did show that recreational weed legalization in Colorado was correlated with a further decline in the state’s opioid overdose deaths. But in any case, yesterday’s declaration was a move in the right direction — a direction we can’t afford to change.

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