Opioid overdose deaths have increased markedly in the United States over the last twenty years. In 2016 alone, 42,249 Americans died due to an opioid overdose, a 425 percent increase since 1999. As such, this epidemic has had a devastating impact of a variety of communities, permeating a diverse cross-section of the American society.
The Opioid Crisis has gained significant media attention, in part because of the prevalence of overdose deaths in suburban, predominantly white, communities. According to the 2018 Harvard Public Opinion Project poll, which surveyed 2,631 individuals aged 18 to 29, 12.1 percent of respondents have either been directly affected by the opioid crisis themselves, or know a close friend or relative who has been affected. Also, 16 percent of white respondents had been affected themselves or knew someones who has been affected, compared to 5.8 percent of blacks, 9.1 percent of Hispanics, and 2.2 percent of Asians. Some in the popular media have argued that the Opioid Crisis’ disproportionate effect on white Americans has biased lawmakers, who are also predominantly white, to treat this issue as a matter of “public health,” rather than an epidemic of crime. The latter was the case during the Crack Crisis of the 1980s, which disproportionately affected blacks.
Republicans were also more likely than Democrats to be affected by the Opioid Crisis, with 14 percent of Republicans surveyed reporting in the affirmative, as opposed to 10 percent of Democrats. This discrepancy is not surprising, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “over-performed the most in counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates.” This “Deaths-of-Despair” hypothesis posits that those communities which have faced significant post-industrial economic decline have been hit the hardest by the spread of opioids in this country. Trump, of course, found much electoral support in these downtrodden communities, indicating a relationship between support for the Republican Party, or at least the Republican nominee in 2016, and contact with the Opioid Crisis.
The survey also asked participants their views on “expanding the use of medical marijuana as a substitute for chronic pain patients who are currently being prescribed opioids.” Of those surveyed, 65.7 percent said that they at least “somewhat supported” this measure. This comes at a time where 29 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.
73.5 percent of those respondents who have graduated college answered in the affirmative, as opposed to only 13.3 percent in the negative. 16.2 percent of respondents were unsure if they supported or opposed this policy. However, recent scholarship provides evidence for the beneficial effect of marijuana legalization on overdose deaths. According to one study, “providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers.” These findings are preliminary and do not confirm that medical marijuana can reduce opioid abuse, but they do suggest that marijuana could possibly help combat the opioid epidemic. Yet, in spite of the majority’s support for this policy and the state of recent scholarship, federal efforts from the Trump Administration have looked to limit the prescription use of marijuana, ironically as part of a nationwide effort to curb overdose in the United States.
Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to support expanding medical marijuana expansion. 49.6 percent of Democrats polled “Strongly Support” expansion, as opposed to only 29.4 percent of Republicans.
Lastly, the poll asked participants if they support or oppose “creating supervised injection sites in [their] city or town for those addicted to opioids.” Although both marijuana legalization and safe-injection expansion are harm-reduction efforts, far fewer participants support this policy. Only 11.6 percent of respondents “strongly support” injection sites and 20.4 percent “somewhat support” them. Once again, a rather large portion of the survey—29.5 percent of respondents—did not know their position. However, academic research on this subject is widespread, with one study indicating that safe injection sites are associated with “lower overdose mortality…67% fewer ambulance calls for treating overdoses, and a decrease in HIV infections.” Democrats were more likely than Republicans to support this policy, with 16.3 percent of Democrats strongly supporting safe injection, compared to only 2.3 percent of Republicans.
Public opinion surrounding America’s recent increase in overdose deaths is one that is greatly shaped by personal experiences. The growing support among the public for harm-reduction policies such as marijuana substitution and safe injection sites indicates that many Americans are willing to adopt new measures to combat this issue. Still, only time will tell if public policy will be moved by public opinion.