Shower thoughts over coffee.

As I sit through my fourth cup of coffee eating a mooshy veggie burger at the hospital coffee joint, something keeps rattling around in my head.

I have training and experience in both pain and addictions, and I go back before our current prescription opioid epidemic. This really followed a typical pattern of a drug epidemic; the greater availability and high potency of the “new” version of the drug class, the perception of greater safety, the dissocation from the stigmatized population, etc. We’re working our way through it, and right now as everyone’s trying to get their thumbs into the dam controlling prescription opioids, the second wave is starting. Some will enter recovery, some will convert to the endemic heroin and we will see all the ugliness that comes with that; new HIV and hepatitis cases, and all the social disruption.

As that settles out marijuana is now legal in many places, talked about as if it is “medicine” though we’re not really sure how well it works – that partly because doing any real research on it is very, very hard due to government policy. Despite all this talk about it being “medicine” it is remarkably divorced from the medical system. Scheduling, regulation, even the necessity for an actual no-kidding prescription. It’s also funny how quickly after it’s medicalized-but-really-not we find greater acceptance of its use recreationally.

I have all kinds of thoughts on this, but one thing keeps clanging in my head. I gather there is a strong economic argument that legalization (which is a vague term if you think of it, ranging from laissez-faire to repenalization) is a good way to manage the problems of addictive drugs. I rather like some versions of a repenalization system myself. It might take the steam out of the illicit drug trade and reduce some of the crime associated with that underground economy. However, what happens to the prescription regulatory system?

It strikes me as an odd thing to decide that once we understand that a drug is addictive, it should then become less controlled and regulated than, say, an antihypertensive or an NSAID. Do we simultaneously allow people to buy oxycodone in a 7-11 while requiring patients with pain to go to a doctor? Right now, there are places where you can buy cannabis in all its weird chemical complexity but you have to have a prescription for purified, tested, pharmaceutical grade cannabinoids.

I do not pretend to get all the policy implications of this, but I do like people who advocate a position to be able to tell me how it would actually work, and I don’t think I’ve heard that from folk who support decriminalization, including for cannabis. I also wonder a bit about where responsibility lies. If a clinician prescribes a drug there is a clear chain of responsibility, but if someone “recommends” a drug with no clear indications which a patient could buy anywhere for any reason, where does responsibility lie? Do we just live with the “pill mill” down the way?

Moar coffee.

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