This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Chances are you've seen the billboards asking Utahns to "Stop the Opidemic." This marketing effort aims to help people understand that the opiate overdose crisis has reached epidemic levels.
The program is well-intentioned, and opiates pose a significant problem. Utah has an alarmingly high number of deaths due to these addictive and dangerous drugs. On average, 24 Utahns die every single month from overdosing on opiates. Something needs to change.
But is the marketing campaign the right way to effect real change?
As Utah's highways are saturated in marketing messages (to say nothing of all the TV and online ads the campaign is running), I began wondering just how much the Utah Department of Health was spending on what amounts to clever propaganda, aimed at convincing the public that they are doing something to help solve the epidemic.
So I directed our staff at Libertas Institute to get the information. Documents we obtained through Utah's open records law indicate that a staggering $590,000 in taxpayer dollars are being spent on this campaign not including staff time spent on the yearlong effort.
It is unclear if this will have any effect on lowering the overdose rate.
What would have a demonstrable and positive impact on that rate is cannabis.
That's right: medical marijuana.
And this isn't a farfetched claim, either. States have seen their overdose rate decline after legalizing medical marijuana.
That comes from the Journal of the American Medical Association, which examined "the implementation of state medical marijuana laws and opioid analgesic overdose deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2010." The result? "States with medical marijuana laws had a 24.8 percent lower average annual opioid overdose death rate compared to states without such laws."
In plain English, that means states that legalized medical marijuana saw, on average, a 25 percent reduction in opiate overdoses. With 24 deaths per month in Utah, that would mean six lives saved every single month. That's an actual effect saving real lives, based on data not hope and marketing slogans.
But a few politicians have persistently stonewalled efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Utah and thus save six lives a month. The Legislature has proven itself unwilling to allow Utahns a small amount of freedom to ingest a plant that can help them medicinally. In contrast, the state is willing to spend over half a million taxpayer dollars discouraging opiate use but providing no reasonable alternative.
Even though the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that using marijuana for a variety of medical conditions "is supported by high-quality evidence," the association itself calls it a "dangerous drug." Their opposition is echoed by the Utah chapter of the organization, whose officers and lobbyists have actively fought legalization attempts at the Legislature in recent years.
I am reminded of a story that will resonate with many Utahns. The early Latter-day Saints suffered a great deal, albeit in a different way. They, too, petitioned their government for redress and support. This political effort culminated in a meeting between Joseph Smith and President Martin Van Buren, in which the president told Smith, "Your cause is just, but I cannot help you," citing a political need to not go against Missouri.
The state of Utah was created, in large part, due to this government inaction; the Latter-day Saints took their protection into their own hands and abandoned the country that had abandoned them. Yet today, officers of the Utah government have effectively given suffering Utahns the same message Martin Van Buren once did: "Your cause is just, but I cannot help you," citing a political need to not go against the Utah Medical Association, the LDS Church or other powerful lobbyists seeking to keep cannabis illegal.
Our organization tried working with the Legislature for two years to create a legal program under which sick Utahns could obtain and use cannabis to alleviate their pain or treat their conditions. The Legislature has ignored them and proven itself unwilling to remedy the injustice they face as criminals merely for trying to be healthy.
It is time for them to abandon the Legislature that has abandoned them. It is time for a ballot initiative so the people can fix the law to ensure justice is served.
Utahns are dying tragically and needlessly from the epidemic of opiate overdoses. They need help. Billboards and online ads won't stop their spiral downward. A little bit of freedom and some cannabis can.
Connor Boyack is president of Libertas Institute.