Last weekend, Los Angeles hosted the annual Politicon: the Comic Con for political junkies. In essence, it’s a symposium of knowledge, personalities, news, and information. Ostensibly, people representing the political spectrum are supposed to unite for seminars, panel discussions, question-and-answer sessions, podcasts, and debates while engaging in an open discourse.
The air was thick with political perspectives as Ann Coulter—an avid Trump supporter, and Kathy Griffin—a vehement Trump opponent, made appearances on the same day. One particular afternoon panel was less about partisan politics, however, and more about one of America’s biggest failures: the national opioid crisis. This panel was the only discussion at last weekend’s event specifically focused on the alarming rates of fatal overdoses due to heroin, prescription painkillers, and fentanyl, shedding light on the US’ inadequate approach to policing drugs.
Moderated by Mo Kelly, KFI AM 640 radio host and media personality, this panel featured Chris Christie, former New Jersey Governor; Dr. Drew Pinsky, addiction and internal medicine specialist; Johann Hari, British travel journalist and author; and Kentucky’s Democratic Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes.
“I have been complaining about this problem, for 15 years now,” said Dr. Drew, opening the group discussion. “ I saw footage of me on CNN from years ago talking about this with Larry King. My patients are dying, I see this every day in my field. The battleship has turned a bit but we still have a lot of work to do, and it will not be an easy discussion to have.”
Dr. Drew opened the group talk to explain that the opiate epidemic is a complex, multi-layered crisis—one in which thousands of people in this country die from every day.
“So many people are hooked on prescription drugs, painkillers, and benzodiazepines—things like Valium and Xanax,” he said. “What is important about this is mixing benzos and opiates is a fatal mix. For people out there to think that this is just street heroin is a huge mistake.”
What ends up happening, Dr. Drew explains, is that the pills stop getting prescribed for whatever reason. So many of these people move to street heroin and fentanyl, which leads to more overdoses, and ultimately more people dying.
Concurring, Chris Christie added to the notion of prescription opiates and other drugs being over prescribed. “It’s been going on for decades, and yes some of these doctors are responsible for over prescribing.”
Christie also noted that during his tenure as New Jersey Governor he helped make an impact in the opiate crisis. He said that among his accomplishments, the state required mandatory treatment for many first time drug offenders, and several state prisons were converted to drug treatment facilities. He stressed that he thinks decriminalizing small-time users and addicts is the route to take—despite using anti-cannabis rhetoric in his some of his previous public speaking engagements.
“But, the Justice System needs to turn its attention to China, because if you think opioids or heroin from the streets are dangerous, they really need to look at fentanyl.” he said. “The Chinese, in my opinion, are waging war on us by flooding our country with fentanyl. But when it comes to addiction, this is a disease we need to stop stigmatizing it.”
Secretary of State Grimes, chimed in on the discussion when the panel was asked about any possible political or legislative solutions to this problem.
“Addiction knows no race, gender, secular, or socioeconomic background,” she said. “In my state of Kentucky, we have over two-times the average of deaths from heroin and opiates, and this involves prescriptions, heroin and fentanyl.”
Johann Hari, author, world traveler, and journalist spoke about his experiences traveling to countries specifically to research drug laws and policy. Compared to other countries, what America lacks in terms of drugs-use and laws is empathy. Hari said the keys are compassion towards those who suffer from addiction and treatment of their pain, emphasizing the healing of emotional wounds.
“We have to all learn from the countries which are succeeding in their drug policies, like Portugal and Switzerland, where they had a massive heroin epidemic in the 1990s,” he said, suggesting that the US should rethink its national policy, not just on heroin, but all drugs.
Chris Christie told the panel that he didn’t see that or those stats in New Jersey with its medical cannabis program. Although there is evidence supporting the contrary in New Jersey (and other states), Christie was still adamant that he saw no connection.
“Though New Jersey had the medical cannabis program for nine years, I didn’t find the same correlation,” he said. “However, I will be first to say that it has helped mostly our veterans who are reporting relief from PTSD and other conditions, so I am not against it.”
Dr. Drew closed by emphasizing the help that the 12-step program can offer those suffering from addiction to heroin, alcohol or any drug. “This program is free and available everywhere,” he said. “Why we don’t fully embrace that amazes me.”
Nearly 100 people gathered to listen to the dialogue regarding the epidemic that’s impacted nearly everyone in America—regardless of where you land on the political spectrum. And what this discussion revealed was the fact there are no easy answers. Because it’s a deep and multilayered problem, a single solution likely won’t have the necessary facets to halt or “fix” this issue of epic dimensions.
One thing is certain, though: more cannabis research needs to be done because the concept of cannabis being an opioid sparing drug is potentially a piece of the opioid epidemic puzzle. We need to find out definitively whether and how it can help– and then it needs to be discussed at events like Politicon. Because, if the attendance at this Politicon panel was any indication, people want to explore the array of solutions to this problem; which will continue to be an uphill battle. One we can’t give up on.