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According to the Centers for Disease Control, 46 Americans, on average, die each day as a result of prescription opiate abuse. According to Dr. Sonjay Gupta, opiate addiction deaths now surpass car accidents as the leading cause of preventable deaths.

Americans are, in general, the most overmedicated society in the history of civilization, opting for a “pill” to fix everything when changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle are what, in many cases, the doctor really should be ordering. And although the U.S. constitutes only 4.6 percent of the world's population, we consume 80 percent of the world's opiates. And the prescription opiod dependence has led to a heroine epidemic as desperate prescription addicts soon realize the real thing is cheaper, more available and more efficient. Of course, the heroine epidemic has been a real boon for the Mexican drug cartels.

The opiate/heroine scourge is no accident. It was sponsored by the American drug cartel, a/k/a big pharmaceutical companies. Clearly, they are the robber barons of the 21st century.

The star of the show, OxyContin, arrived in 1996 as a safe alternative for other painkillers due to its time-release, “abuse-proof” formula.

A January Newsweek magazine story, "The Junkie with the White Picket Fence - Big Pharma, Heroin and the American Dream," reports the following: In the late 1990s, Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, doubled its sales force, increased its advertising fivefold and by 2001 was spending $200 million a year marketing OxyContin. Purdue even had access to a database that kept track of prescription patterns among doctors. By 2010, there were enough painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. to medicate every single American adult all day for an entire month. In 2007, Purdue pleaded guilty to federal charges it misbranded OxyContin and misled patients and doctors about the risk of addiction and abuse. Despite this, sales rose to $3.1 billion by 2010.

What’s amazing is that at the same time people are drowning in a sea of opiates, there is a much-safer alternative. The only side effects are a fine and/or imprisonment.

Medical marijuana, unlike opiates, has never been linked to any fatal overdoses, which is why 25 states have legalized its use. Both the Iowa and Nebraska legislatures are considering legalizing medical marijuana, but as of the date of this writing chances for passage appear slim at best.

Ben Marksmeier is a Nebraska Army National Guard sergeant who lost most of his right leg in 2007 to a roadside bomb in Iraq. While undergoing grueling surgeries and physical therapy, he had to get off painkiller prescriptions twice. According to a recent Omaha World-Herald story, a friend urged Marksmeier to try marijuana as an alternative and he described the pain relief as almost immediate; Marksmeier still uses marijuana on an as-needed basis and has not relied on narcotics since then.

Marksmeier is not alone. A study by Johns Hopkins University tracked opiate overdoes in 13 medical marijuana states. Based on 12 years of data, these states saw an average of 25 percent fewer deaths tied to prescription painkillers. A comparable study at the University of Pennsylvania with data for five years showed a 33.7 percent decrease in prescription overdose deaths.

The medical benefits of marijuana are well-documented for numerous diseases and chronic conditions including Crohn’s Disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, PTSD and several neurologic disorders. A study at the University of Colorado monitored the effect marijuana had on children with resilient epilepsy. Every child experienced a reduction in seizures; 82 percent saw the number of seizures reduced by over half and 45 percent were completely seizure-free.

In spite of the obvious damage of opiates and the obvious benefits of marijuana, state and federal lawmakers live in a continued state of disconnect to reality, or they simply are cowardly. This is why the states that have legalized medical marijuana have done so through statewide referendum, bypassing politicians. (Nebraska has this process, Iowa does not). The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Class I drug along with heroin, LSD, ecstasy, qualudes and peyote. What world do these people live in?

At the same time state and federal governments continue to try to “protect” us from “reefer madness,” good old-fashioned legal booze continues to be one of the leading killers in this country. Some 88,000 people died last year from excessive drinking. Among working-age adults aged 20 to 64, one in 10 deaths were from alcohol. It’s your daddy’s Budweiser, not marijuana, that is the real gateway drug we should be concerned with.

By the way, how many marijuana-related deaths were there last year?

Next week: Linda Holub

A Sioux City resident and local attorney, Al Sturgeon is a former Democratic state representative and senator. He is the father of six children.

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