Legalized Marijuana Leads To Decrease In Opioid Deaths

By Kelly Burch 03/30/17

Opioid abuse decreased by 23% in states after medical marijuana was made available.

Person smoking a marijuana cigarette.

Access to legal marijuana has been linked to a significant decrease in opioid-related hospital visits and lower rates of opioid abuse, according to new analysis.

The study, published the the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, found that rates of opioid-related hospitalizations fell 23% in states after medical marijuana was made available. Hospitalizations for opioid overdoses dropped an average of 13%.

"This study and a few others provided some evidence regarding the potential positive benefits of legalizing marijuana to reduce opioid use and abuse, but they are still preliminary," study author Yuyan Shi, a public health professor at the University of California, San Diego, told Reuters.

Researchers had expected to see an increase in marijuana-related hospitalizations, but that was not the case. "Instead, medical marijuana laws may have reduced hospitalizations related to opioid pain relievers," Shi said.

The study analyzed data from 1997 through 2014, collected from 27 states, nine of which had medical marijuana at the time. The study is the fifth to show a connection between medical marijuana and decreased opioid overdose deaths and opioid abuse, according to Reuters.

That consistency has caught the attention of people in the medical and public health communities, including Dr. Esther Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, who was not associated with the study.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that battling the opioid epidemic will require a multi-pronged approach and a good deal of creativity," Choo said. "Could increased liberalization of marijuana be part of the solution? It seems plausible.”

However, she cautioned that more research needs to be done. “There is still much we need to understand about the mechanisms through which marijuana policy may affect opioid use and harms,” she said.

The study comes at a time when the nation’s head law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has taken a hardline stance against marijuana.

“I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful,” Sessions said earlier this month. “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.”

Sessions specifically questioned the need for medical marijuana.

“I think medical marijuana has been hyped, maybe too much,” he said. “So forgive me if I’m a bit dubious about that.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.