Uncertain Priorities Affect Enforcement of Federal and Texas Opioid and Marijuana Laws

While drug laws at the federal and state levels classify a vast array of “controlled substances,” two in particular have stood out in recent political and legal debates. The legalization of marijuana for medical use is now a reality in at least 26 states, including Texas. Several states have gone a step further and legalized the distribution and possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use. At the same time, opioid use is on the rise across the country, and the number of deaths resulting from overdoses have led many to call it an “epidemic.” Both drugs are scheduled as controlled substances, but the similarities mostly end there. Some research suggests that allowing medical marijuana use may reduce the number of opioid overdose deaths. Federal officials, however, continue to view opioid use as a matter of criminal enforcement rather than public health. The federal government’s approach to these issues is likely to influence the Texas criminal justice system’s response.

The term “opioid” can refer to almost any drug derived from opium, including heroin. In its current usage, it usually refers to prescription painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone, as well as synthetic products like fentanyl. Heroin is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it has “a high potential for abuse” and “no currently accepted medical use.” 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(b)(1), (c)(I)(b)(10), (c)(I)(c)(10). Fentanyl and many other pharmaceutical opioid products are Schedule II controlled substances, meaning that, while addictive, they have medical uses. Id. at §§ 812(b)(2), (c)(II)(b)(6). The Drug Enforcement Administration moved hydrocodone from Schedule III to Schedule II in 2014, largely because of the increase in overdose deaths. 79 Fed. Reg. 49661 (Aug. 22, 2014).

Scientific studies have not shown marijuana to have addictive properties at all similar to those of opioids. It is nevertheless classified in Schedule I alongside heroin. 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(c)(I)(c)(10). Numerous state medical marijuana laws dispute the assessment that the drug has no accepted medical use. The Texas medical marijuana law is among the most restrictive in the country, and it allows the use of “low-THC cannabis” only in the treatment of intractable epilepsy. See Tex. Health & Safety Code § 487.001 et seq., Tex. Occ. Code § 169.001 et seq.

Colorado became the first state in the country to allow the recreational use of marijuana in 2014. Preliminary studies of that state and others suggest that legal medical and recreational marijuana use may reduce opioid use. During the first two years after Colorado’s new marijuana law took effect, the state’s opioid-related deaths decreased by over six percent. Further studies are needed to make any definitive connection, but the study seems to follow other studies that show a decrease in opioid overdose deaths when medical marijuana becomes legally available.

Despite data showing these potential benefits of medical marijuana, the federal government continues to treat both marijuana and opioids as a law enforcement matter. The White House has proposed substantially greater spending on law enforcement regarding opioids, and public statements by the Attorney General suggest that he believes marijuana use makes opioid addiction more likely, rather than less.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

For over 20 years, board-certified drug crime attorney Michael J. Brown has defended people in West Texas who are facing state and federal charges. You can contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced criminal justice advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Texas Police Departments End Use of Drug-Testing Kits with History of False Positive Results, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 2, 2017

Opioid Addiction Epidemic Raises Questions About Drug Treatment vs. Drug Law Enforcement, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 25, 2017

“Good Samaritan” Laws Intended to Help Drug Overdose Victims May Not Have the Desired Effect, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 25, 2017