Salty tears are streaming down Krissy Mcafee’s face as she begins to tell the reporters in front of her that she is heartbroken. Krissy’s heart is broken because her best friend and daughter, Carlie, overdosed on heroin and died the night before.
22-year-old Carlie Coulter was just one of 16 victims in 2012 to die from a heroin overdose in Santa Clarita, and Krissy is just one of the many grieving mothers to suffer the unimaginable pain of losing your child to the monster that is heroin.
The sad truth is that the use of the drug is currently on the rise in America, and Santa Clarita still does not appear to be spared its share of casualties.
Drug overdoses in Santa Clarita appear to be on course to double last year’s numbers according to Sheriff’s Station officials. Current strategies in place to combat heroin use in Santa Clarita include increased emphasis on law enforcement.
This inspired the formation of the Juvenile Intervention Team by the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, tasked with breaking the cycle of increasing youth drug addiction and crimes associated with drugs. The city also created outreach programs like “Heroin Kills”, aimed at raising awareness of the dangers associated with opiates. While this strategy of increased education and enforcement yielded mild success for the city in recent years, the number of fatalities attributed to heroin continues to grow today. With current strategies failing to stop the growth of Santa Clarita’s heroin problem, some could argue that the answer lies with marijuana.
A study published in the Fall of 2014 by the American Medical Association concluded that states with medical cannabis laws were associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates, up to 25 percent lower than those without medical cannabis legislation. Another study conducted by Amanda Reiman, PhD MSW, in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2009 found that medical cannabis patients engage in substitution by using cannabis as an alternative to alcohol, prescription and illicit drugs, resulting in far less harm to the abuser. Reiman states, “There are actual properties of the cannabis plant that can aid in getting off of other substances. When you look at the withdrawal symptoms of drugs like opiates and alcohol—things like nausea, tremors, trouble sleeping—these are all conditions which cannabis is really good at fixing.”
While it can be argued that marijuana has clear medical benefits, critics often see marijuana use as the first step on a grim stairway leading to an eventual death from harder drugs. This line of thinking is derived from the gateway hypothesis, which suggests that the use of a gateway drug like marijuana will eventually cause the user to graduate to harder, more dangerous substances like heroin or methamphetamine. Current research can only provide evidence of association of later drug use when starting with marijuana, not causation. However, some experts like Dr. Henry David Abrahams, Nobel Peace Prize laureate disagree with the idea that marijuana leads to hard drug use. Abrahams stated in a 2013 interview that smoking cigarettes during adolescence is more likely to lead to drug or alcohol abuse later in life than using marijuana. Another popular belief is that marijuana is highly addictive, but research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that less than 1-in-10 people who use marijuana become dependent on it, whereas lifetime risk of developing dependence was 32 percent for nicotine, 23 percent for heroin, 15 percent for alcohol and 11 percent for stimulants.
Some local health care experts like Larry Schallert, Assistant Director of the Student Health and Wellness Center at College of the Canyons find themselves on the fence about medical marijuana benefitting Santa Clarita. When presented with the study conducted by the Harm Reduction Journal in 2009 regarding substitution, Schallert stated, “If you have an addiction to any kind of opioid, or alcohol, or methamphetamine, or cocaine and there’s some evidence that shows use of cannabis actually helps with harm reduction, decreases relapses, helps with the slope towards sobriety, or using it less then that would make a lot of sense and would constitute medical use of marijuana.” What worries Schallert is that medical marijuana dispensaries are often misused by those looking to use marijuana for strictly recreational purposes, resulting in unregulated self medication, especially among youth.
Implementation of marijuana as a substitute to ween off the addictive behaviors of hard drugs such as heroin or meth is largely due to the lack of scientific evidence available currently. The stigma that surrounds marijuana as well as its stifled scientific analysis can be attributed to its classification as a Schedule I drug, which categorizes marijuana with the potential to be just as harmful and addictive as drugs such as heroin and LSD. The classification also makes it extremely difficult for researchers to try and understand marijuana and its many properties. R. Douglas Fields, a neurobiologist from the National Institute of Health recently stated, “The government’s research restrictions are so severe that it’s difficult to find and show the medical benefit of marijuana.” Regardless, scientific progress continues to be made even with current government restrictions continuing to hinder efforts to understand marijuana. As for marijuana’s future in Santa Clarita, the city council is expected to endorse Assembly Bill 266 which will likely keep medical dispensaries out of Santa Clarita.