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Cannabis Legalization Leads to Fewer Opioid Deaths, According to New Research

Study looking at opioid-related deaths in Colorado saw these fatalities drop as a result of recreational marijuana legalization in the state.

New research published last week in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado resulted in a reversal of opioid-related deaths by 6.5 percent. The U.S. is facing an epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse, leading to more than 90 overdose deaths every day. That cannabis legalization can help reverse this trend is welcome news.

Opioids are a class of narcotic drugs that act on the nervous system to produce powerful morphine-like effects. Commonly recommended by doctors for pain relief, opioids interact with opioid receptors to reduce the sending of pain messages to the brain. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose. Nearly half of those deaths involved a prescription opioid.

While opioids include prescription painkillers like Codeine, Fentanyl, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, and more, the classification also includes the illegal drug heroin, which often becomes the final step for those fighting opioid addiction. About 80 percent of people who turn to illegal heroin first misused prescription opioids.

Performed by University of North Texas Health Science Center researchers and their colleagues, the study concluded that, “After Colorado’s legalization of recreational cannabis sale and use, opioid-related deaths decreased more than 6% in the following 2 years.”

The authors examined trends in monthly opiate overdose fatalities in Colorado before and after the state’s recreational marijuana market opened in 2014 and included data from 2000-2015. The researchers attempted to isolate the effect of recreational, rather than medical, marijuana by comparing data in Colorado to that of Nevada, which allowed medical but not recreational marijuana during that period.

While there has been positive research showing that medical marijuana programs lead to decreases in opioid use and abuse, this is the first study to specifically look at the effects of recreational marijuana on opioid deaths.

Opioid-related hospitalizations were found to drop significantly in states after the passing of medical marijuana laws. That may be because marijuana is often highly effective at treating the same types of chronic pain that patients are often prescribed opiates for. Given the choice between marijuana and opiates, many patients appear to be opting for the former, and when used as an adjunct to pain medications, patients are able to use fewer prescription drugs.

The authors of the new study note that the results of the study are preliminary, given that their research encompasses only two years of data after the state’s first recreational marijuana shops opened in 2014. However, as more data becomes available and more studies are completed, perhaps we will get a clearer picture of the benefits cannabis can play in battling America’s opioid epidemic.

“As policymakers continue to grapple with both the growing opioid crisis and the rapidly changing landscape of marijuana laws in the U.S., scientific evidence is needed to help inform policy decisions to combat this disturbing upward trend in opioid-related deaths,” said Melvin D. Livingston, PhD, lead author of the study.

While many lawmakers are coming around on marijuana, some in the current administration are dubious on cannabis legalization, despite research demonstrating its advantages. This includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has linked marijuana negatively to the spread of opioid addiction in this country. This goes against the popular belief in America that cannabis is largely safer than opioids. Studies like this one help affirm that contrary to the opinions of some, legal marijuana decreases, rather than increases, opioid use.

Learn more about how cannabis may be a solution to America’s opioid crisis on our news feed.

Post by Jeffrey Stamberger

Jeffrey writes media content covering the latest in news, medical research, policy changes, and product education from the cannabis industry.

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