Nine hundred people in Philadelphia dropped dead last year due to drug overdoses — three times the number of homicide victims — and the city’s opioid problem has become a full-blown crisis.

Task forces have been organized, legislation has been proposed, organizations and nonprofits have mobilized. But what if an answer to the city’s growing heroin and opioid addiction epidemic is already on its way?

Some physicians and public officials believe Pennsylvania’s nascent medical marijuana program could have a significant impact and save lives by serving as an alternative prescription for chronic pain management as opposed to opioids, the prescription drugs that studies show can serve as a gateway to heroin addiction.

Other officials aren’t so sure treating a drug problem with another drug is the right move. And there’s little research to lean on here, as marijuana is classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I drug (alongside things like meth and heroin), making it difficult and time-consuming for medical researchers to study its impacts.

Bruce Nicholson, a Lehigh Valley pain management physician who was a member of the state’s Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, believes medical cannabis can provide a solution to the over-prescribing of opioids to treat pain.

“Rather than reach for a needle,” he said, “they use either a vape pen or whatever they use to quell that impulsive behavior that may end up being destructive.”

Fatal drug overdoses in Philadelphia in 2016 reached more than 900 people, a whopping 30 percent increase over the previous year. Of those, 80 percent were related to opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin. Statewide, more than 3,500 people died of drug overdoses in 2015, also a 30 percent increase over the year prior and making Pennsylvania’s drug overdose rate one of the highest in the country.

Andy Colwell for

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