A special White House commission on the opioid crisis, led by Chris Christie, offered its first recommendations Monday, calling for President Trump to declare a state of emergency and advocating for a variety of measures to increase access to addiction treatment and reduce the supply of illicit fentanyl.
But the report was also notable for what it failed to mention: the thousands of public comments urging the government to consider using marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic.
During a public conference call led by Christie, the Republican New Jersey governor repeatedly touted the volumes of public feedback the commission has received. The interim report cited “more than 8,000 comments from the public,” which Christie said was an “indication there is a real passion out there in the country for getting this done.”
Tom Angell, founder of the advocacy group Marijuana Majority, pointed out that the vast majority of those public comments were related to weed. Angell would know: His group and NORML — the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws — urged their members to contact the commission via form letters on their websites.
Prior to the publication of the report Monday, VICE News filed a FOIA request for all public comments received by the commission. That request is pending, but the Office of National Drug Control Policy responded to say there were “more than 8,000” records.
Sandy Slater, who handles FOIA requests for the agency, told VICE News that the public comments included “a couple thousand” letters from different marijuana campaigns. “It’s not a form, but it’s worded pretty much same,” Slater said. “Somebody will throw in a personal story on top of it or below it, but the language in a lot of them is the same.”
Alex Barriger, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which provides administrative and financial support for the opioid commission, said it received “more than 7,800 public comments relating to marijuana.” He referred questions about why marijuana was not discussed in the report to Christie’s office, and the governor’s spokesman did not respond to emails and a phone call from VICE News seeking comment.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, has previously railed against marijuana legalization, calling it “beyond stupidity” and describing tax revenue from legal weed sales as “blood money.”
“We are in the midst of the public health crisis on opiates,” Christie said in a speech in May. “But people are saying pot’s OK. This is nothing more than crazy liberals who want to say everything’s OK. Baloney.”
Other members of the opioid commission have also publicly opposed marijuana legalization. Dr. Bertha Madras, a Harvard Medical School professor and the former deputy director for demand reduction in the Drug Czar’s office, has advocated for keeping weed in the same restrictive category of illegal drugs as heroin. Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, where voters approved a recreational marijuana law last year, said previously that “marijuana is not safe” and causes “severe mental health issues.”
There is, however, a growing body of evidence that suggests marijuana could help mitigate the opioid crisis. Researchers at the University of Georgia found that states experience significant declines in painkiller prescriptions after passing medical marijuana laws. Another study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that states with medical marijuana had 27 percent fewer deaths from opioid painkillers, compared to those without.
Despite indications that marijuana could be used as a viable alternative to prescription pills, the opioid commission called for Trump to order the National Institute of Health to work with pharmaceutical companies on the “development of new, non-opioid pain relievers.”
“The nation needs more options to treat those already addicted and can help to prevent addiction in the first place by avoiding the prescription of opioids,” the report stated.
The version released Monday is an interim report. Though the final findings are due in October, it appears unlikely the commission’s focus will change — marijuana is not among the topics slated to receive “a more thorough examination” in the coming months.
Angell told VICE News he thinks it’s possible the commission didn’t count duplicate form letters from his group or has some other rationale for excluding marijuana from the report and the public call Monday.
“Maybe there’s some room for argument to be made they didn’t just ignore the vast majority of public comments, but I’m skeptical to say the least,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is necessarily under the illusion that it’s going to be easy to get this commission to recommend [marijuana]. But they should at least address our concerns and the growing body of science indicating that marijuana is associated with reduced opioid issues.”