Legalized Cannabis Could Help Curb the Opioid Epidemic, Study Finds


A new study shows that in states that have legalized medical marijuana, hospitals haven’t been inundated with marijuana users as had been predicted. They have, however, treated significantly fewer opioid users than in recent years.

In states that allowed medical marijuana, hospital admissions for opioid abuse dropped an average 23 percent, the research showed. Rates for hospitalization due to opioid overdoses decreased an average of 13 percent.

In the midst of this, the anxiety over the legalization of medical marijuana leading to cannabis-related admissions was unwarranted, based on a report in Drug and Alcohol  Dependence.

The author of the study, Yuyan Shi, a public health professor at the University of California, San Diego, feels that medical marijuana may have decreased hospital admissions due to opioid pain relievers. Though this study, as well as a few others, provide some signs that point to there being positive benefits in legalizing marijuana in an effort to curb opioid use and overdosing. However, it’s still too early to predict, Yuyan Shi indicated.

Dr. Esther Choo is a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. She had similar feelings regarding the study’s suggestion that more liberal access to marijuana could lower the rates of abuse of painkillers.

Though Dr. Choo wasn’t involved in the study, she sees access to medical marijuana as a possible solution in helping to reduce the opioid epidemic. However, at the same time, she believes that there is much that needs to be learned about how marijuana policy could impact opioid use.

It is estimated that 60 percent of Americans live in the 28 states as well as Washington D.C., where medical marijuana is legal at the state level.

In the midst of this, there’s a massive opioid epidemic that is occurring. Since 1999, sales of drugs like Oxycontin and Vicodin have quadrupled and are killing Americans at a rate of 91 per day.

Shi conducted an analysis of hospital records spanning from 1997 through 2014, for 27 states. Of these, nine had implemented medical marijuana policies. Like several studies conducted before, her study showed a significant reduction in opioid use or deaths in states which had legalized medical cannabis.

Prior to this, there had been other studies which reported a possible link between medical marijuana and a reduction in prescriptions for opioids, opioid-related car accidents and deaths related to opioids.

In a study conducted in 2014, Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, showed that in states that had legalized medical marijuana, there was a 25 percent decrease in deaths caused by opioid overdoses.

In a phone interview, Bachhuber stated that he provides cannabis as an option for his patients who have severe or chronic pain from HIV/AIDS or neuropathy.

A number of Bachhuber’s patients request help in coming off of highly addictive opioids. Some have used marijuana to wean themselves off of prescription painkillers.

Despite favorable evidence that cannabis is an effective and less harmful alternative to opioids, a 1970 federal law remains in effect and places cannabis in the same category as heroin, which is Schedule 1 of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act and determines it to have no medicinal value. As a result, doctors can’t prescribe marijuana, they can only recommend it. Doctors who work for the Federal Government are prohibited from even discussing marijuana. Because of Federal prohibition, there are extreme limitations on marijuana research.

In January, a National Academies report found a significant amount of evidence that cannabis can effectively treat chronic pain, nausea as a result of chemotherapy, as well as  spasticity. The report was written by an independent panel of medical experts. They also found no evidence of cannabis overdose-related deaths.

The report did find links between cannabis use and an increased risk of car accidents. Also, among frequent users, the development of schizophrenia or other psychoses could occur.

There is a mammoth amount of research on the most effective methods for marijuana use in the clinical setting, according to Bachhuber.

A National Academies’ report indicates that marijuana does indeed work, according to Bachhuber. However, who it works best for, the best dosing and the length of time for effectiveness are unknown. Much more research is required.

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the nation’s number one drug enforcement official, shared similar concerns about marijuana and heroin.

He told law enforcement officers in Virginia that he was shocked that people would suggest solving the heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana, in essence trading one drug addiction for another.