How Cannabis Dispensaries Impacted Opioid Death Rates

By David Konow 08/13/19

Access to marijuana dispensaries played a role in reducing opioid deaths by 21%, according to a new study.

cannabis dispensary
ID 26791606 © Peter Kim |

With the opioid crisis in America still a major concern, many have been in search of a solution. While cannabis becoming legal across the country is certainly not a cure-all, according to a report in Leafly, cannabis dispensaries have reduced opioid deaths by 21%.

Economists at the University of Massachusetts and Colorado State University conducted a study on cannabis’ effect on the opioid crisis. As their report states, “Our principal finding is that recreational marijuana access significantly decreases opioid mortality, with the most pronounced effects for synthetic opioids. [This] stems primarily from access via dispensaries rather than legality per se.”

Leafly cited another report in 2014 from JAMA, which claimed that in states with medical marijuana laws, there were 25% fewer opioid deaths than in states without medical marijuana laws.

Studying the data, the current research showed that 47,600 people died from opioids in the U.S. in 2017. If dispensaries did indeed reduce the death rate, that means that close to 10,000 people were saved from opioid overdoses.

“Our results have direct relevance for policy, as they indicate that recent expansions to marijuana access have significant co-benefits in the form of reduced opioid mortality," researchers wrote. "States with legal access to marijuana were far less affected by the opioid mortality boom of the past decade than those without. Thus, our work provides important food for thought for state and federal authorities that continue to mull medical and/or recreational legalization of marijuana.”

Lead author Nathan Chan thinks that people may be "dealing with pain through marijuana use, and therefore they're less likely to take on addictive opioids."

In a previous report in Leafly, Philippe Lucas, a cannabis researcher in Canada, said, “Whether it’s medical use or recreational use, cannabis appears to be having an impact on the rates of opioid abuse. If physicians start recommending the use of medical cannabis prior to introducing patients to opioids, those patients that find cannabis to be a successful treatment for their chronic pain might never have to walk down the very tricky path of opioid use that all too often leads to abuse or overuse or overdose.”

Not only is the opioid crisis a major concern in the U.S., but Lucas added that in Canada, “Opioid overdose is the most common cause of accidental death… Right now in Canada and in U.S. states with medical marijuana, physicians are encouraged to prescribe opioids first and if those don’t work, cannabis is considered as a third or fourth-line treatment option. We need to flip that around and make cannabis the second-line treatment option and move opioids to third or fourth option if cannabinoids are not successful.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.