Opioid Use Drops In States With Legal Marijuana

Two new studies show that when states legalize marijuana, they eventually will see opioid use drop.

That’s a result many states have an interest in getting. Opioid use has become an epidemic – literally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and government leaders are looking for ways to at least reduce the problem.

Reducing Opioid Use

One answer could come with voting “yes” at the ballet box on legal medical marijuana, according to the studies.

The findings seem to hinge on the fact that many people are willing to substitute cannabis for opioids when treating issues with pain. And since most of those who abuse opioids start with a medical prescription, never getting that first prescription means less chance of abusing the powerful drug.

“Much Less Risky”

In one study, conducted by W. David Bradford, a professor of public policy at the University of Georgia, along with three colleagues, opioid use dropped significantly in states where medical marijuana was available for pain among those paying through Medicare.

Overall, it was a 14 percent drop. Bradford wrote in the report that the findings “strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids.”

Bradford told National Public Radio that it’s worth pursuing marijuana as pain medication because cannabis is “much less risky” than opioids and “certainly there’s not mortality risk.”

Not The Only Answer

At the University of Kentucky, a similar study looked at opioid use for Medicaid participants. Medicare primarily deals with the elderly, while Medicaid is for low-income Americans. The Kentucky study noted that opioid use and abuse is higher in the lower income demographic.

While the study concluded that legalized marijuana could potentially be one factor in reducing opioid use, it needs to be part of a comprehensive package. “Marijuana liberalization alone cannot solve the opioid epidemic,” the report stated.

Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University, told NPR more study is needed. However, he said that’s difficult to accomplish because marijuana remains illegal under federal law and there are tight controls around research into cannabis.

Studies like the ones from Georgia and Kentucky will continue to get attention because of the serious nature of the opioid epidemic. The CDC reports that of the more than 63,600 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016, 66 percent involved opioids. They now estimate that 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

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