Can Legalizing Recreational Marijuana Curb Opioid-Related Deaths?

By Britni de la Cretaz 10/19/17

A new study found that marijuana legalization in Colorado was connected to a "short-term reduction in opioid-related deaths."

Close up on the hands of an adult Caucasian man rolling a marijuana joint.

A new study provides a boon for advocates of marijuana legalization, and gives insight into a potential tool for reducing the number of overdose deaths. The research points to a reduced number of opioid-related deaths following Colorado’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana use.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at overdoses before and after Colorado began selling legal cannabis in 2014. Researchers found that opioid overdoses decreased 6% over the last two years, a reversal of the national trend. They concluded that, “Legalization of cannabis in Colorado was associated with short-term reductions in opioid-related deaths.”

This suggests that, when given the option between opioids and cannabis for pain management, patients might be likely to choose cannabis. Marijuana itself also comes with virtually no overdose risk, as opposed to opioids, which can cause accidental overdose.

Drug overdose has become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, so the impact of a safer solution cannot be discounted.

Previous research has looked at the link between medical marijuana and opioid overdose rates, finding similar results. A 2014 study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that states where medical marijuana is legal had, on average, 1,700 fewer deaths per year from prescription drugs.

In 2016, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) released a report called “Cannabis: A Promising Option for the Opioid Crisis.” The report showed that fewer pills are prescribed in states with legal medical marijuana.

Just last month, a new five-year study out of the University of New Mexico found that about a third of pain patients who enrolled in medical cannabis programs stopped using painkillers by the end of the study. “Our current opioid epidemic is the leading preventable form of death in the United States, killing more people than car accidents and gun violence,” said Jacob Miguel Vigil, senior author and Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at UNM.

The results of this new study in the AJPH supports the existing research on medical marijuana's macroeconomic impact. If legislators take the results seriously, this research could have a profound effect on the opioid crisis nationwide and open the door for marijuana legalization to gain traction.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.