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Op-Ed: It's Time to Get Serious About Medical Cannabis in Kentucky

Kentucky has three critical reasons to legalize and regulate medical cannabis during the current legislative session: stemming the opioid epidemic, providing funding to help the state’s fiscal crisis, and providing compassionate relief to thousands of Kentuckians who suffer from chronic pain.

Medical cannabis reduces opioid-related addiction and deaths

Kentucky now ranks third in the nation for opioid-related deaths, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. Last year alone, our state saw a 21 percent increase in opioid-related overdose deaths from the prior year.  

Moreover, opioid use is the root cause of the heroin crisis ravaging nearly every community in Kentucky. Heroin does not discriminate. The use and abuse of this drug applies all races, genders, age groups, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes, and this problem is only getting worse in Kentucky.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. According to a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, opioid overdose rates are 25 percent lower in states that have enacted medical cannabis laws.

In addition, states with medical cannabis laws see an 11-percent reduction in opioid prescriptions, according to a University of Georgia study that examined data from Medicare Part D enrollees. Furthermore, this same study concluded that these states saved a combined $165 million in Medicare Part D spending  in 2013 after enacting these laws.

Medical cannabis can help Kentucky address its fiscal crisis

Despite a current economy with strong growth and record unemployment, our state’s outdated tax system and its underfunded public pensions have placed Kentucky on the brink of a fiscal crisis.

Kentucky’s public pension systems are underfunded by between an estimated $40 to $60 billion dollars -- threatening the financial livelihood of current and retired police officers, firefighters, teachers, and other local and state employees. In addition, because of reduced state funding and increased payments to these pension systems, Kentucky’s public school systems and our state universities are making drastic cuts in education, which will adversely affect our children and our communities for years to come.

However, a solution is within our grasp. With a majority of our elected officials reluctant to raise taxes and after years of cost-cutting measures in Frankfort, it’s time for Kentucky to become the 30th state in the union to legalize and regulate medical cannabis.  

The economic benefits are irrefutable. West Virginia, which became the 29th state to legalize medical cannabis, estimates it will generate $45 million in new revenue this year from this industry.  Michigan, which also recently passed a medical cannabis law, conservatively estimates that this industry will bring up to $63 million in additional revenue to the state’s coffers. By 2020, the legalized cannabis industry in the United States is expected to create a total of more than 238,000 high-paying jobs.

Medical cannabis provides significant medical benefits

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have found that patients treated with medical cannabis can experience significant reductions in pain. Medical cannabis is particularly effective in treating pain symptoms related to debilitating diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy, to name a few, according to a review from this recognized and respected organization.

Even the U.S. Veterans Administration has issued a new directive for its clinical programs that frees doctors and pharmacists to discuss the use of medical cannabis with veterans because of the success many of these veterans have experienced using cannabis to relieve pain symptoms, particularly those associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Not only can medical cannabis provide compassionate relief to thousands of Kentuckians suffering from pain and other issues, it also can reduce reliance on physically addictive opioids and provide financial support to our state during its current fiscal crisis. Now is the time to legalize and regulate medical cannabis in Kentucky.

Dr. Kimathi Jones is a Neurosurgeon from Louisville
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