For obvious reasons, marijuana has grabbed the vast majority of drug-related headlines over the past several years. But as the national legalization movement continues to gain momentum, the attention being paid to it tends to obscure a far more concerning substance abuse problem.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported data that showed an alarming and prolonged rise in overdose deaths in Colorado, with the primary culprits being heroin and opioid prescription painkillers. According to the CDC, all but one Colorado county (Mineral) has seen its drug death rates rise over the past dozen years. This has mirrored an equally concerning national trend that’s run amok since the dawn of the millennium.

While many marijuana opponents have wrongly asserted concerns about marijuana being a “gateway drug” to more harmful substances—it’s not—there’s every indication that the over-prescribing of pharmaceutical opioids is resulting in these deaths while also paving an expressway that leads directly to heroin use and abuse, along with all the criminality associated with it.

When prescription painkiller addicts can no longer get these drugs legally, they often turn to the cheaper and easier-to-get heroin to approximate the same high. The problem has reached such a crisis level that the National Governors Association will begin concocting a strategy this summer to address the issue. Given that “Big Pharma” rakes in somewhere between $300 billion and $400 billion per year in the United States alone, dismantling or even resisting this longtime and extraordinarily profitable engine of influence and misery will be a massive undertaking.

There will always be those who argue that adding marijuana to the list of legally sanctioned intoxicants is a step backward, but in this case, pot might be able to show us a way out of this cycle of addiction and overdoses. Senator Elizabeth Warren has asked the CDC to begin studying whether medicinal marijuana might be a useful substitute for prescription painkillers and muscle relaxers. Given that addiction rates for the plant (9 percent) are significantly lower than for harder drugs—weed also is notably less addictive than nicotine and alcohol—it’s definitely worth finding out if a solution to this problem is right there in front of us.

As someone who recently experienced back surgery, I’ve had ready access to prescription pills and medical marijuana alike. If not for the latter, I’d be far more dependent on the former to help me through the pain and discomfort of the procedure and its aftermath. I’d also be that much more likely to become dangerously reliant on drugs that, while legal, are extremely addictive. If the relief options for people with painful conditions such as mine are substances that caused more than 47,000 deaths in 2014 alone versus one that has caused zero overdose deaths, ever, the choice of which path to take couldn’t be more obvious.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @luchatlestad.

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