When states began legalizing marijuana, there was an expectation that there would be significantly more pot smokers. However, not only did that not happen but there was a realization of another consequence, fewer opioid users. The decline was not just a few less or even a handful. Hospitalization rates for those who had a dependence on painkillers and opioids dropped an average of 23% in the states in which marijuana was legalized for medicinal purposes, and overdose rates declined by an average of 13%.
Even as hospitals braced for an increase in marijuana-induced hospitalizations, a report in Drug and Alcohol dependence has shown that these hospitalizations just didn’t occur. The studies author, Yuyan Shi, a professor of public health at the University of California pointed out that the use of medical marijuana may have led to the reduction in hospitalizations for opioid pain treatments. She went on to say that although the results are preliminary, his study is not the only to reveal this trend.
A professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, located in Portland, found herself intrigued by the study. Dr. Esther Choo has expressed that the theory that access to marijuana may lower misuse of opioids certainly needs long-term and creative research, but it should indeed occur. She suggested in an email that it is plausible to think that increasing access to marijuana could solve the opioid dilemma. She was quick to add that there is much we still need to learn about marijuana and the policies that surround it.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states and Washington, D.C. These areas are home to 60% of Americans. And although the studies suggest a reduction, prescription painkiller abuse still kills an average of 91 individuals daily. Dr. Choo set to work analyzing hospital records dating 1997-2014 for 27 states. Nine of the states analyzed have legal medical marijuana. She came to the same conclusion as others, as the nine states did show declines in opioid-related death.
Even studies done years previously have shown this decrease. Dr. Marcus Bachhuber showed in 2014 revealed that in legal medical marijuana states, opioid overdose deaths had fallen by 25%. Dr. Bachhuber has offered cannabis in his menu of pain relievers at his practice for the last year. He treats patients who are in severe pain as a result of HIV/AIDS in New York but was not involved in this study.
He stated in a phone interview that many of his patients express a desire to move away from opioids, which can be highly addictive, and many have made the switch to marijuana to help them taper off. However, because of a 1970 federal law, he is unable to prescribe, and can only state a recommendation for marijuana. This law put cannabis down as a Schedule 1 Drug, which is the same categorization of heroin. In fact, this law makes it so that if a doctor works for the federal government, they are not allowed to even mention marijuana, and it limits the research that can be done.
This January, a report by National Academies stated that they had found conclusive evidence that marijuana treats chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and that there is no indication whatsoever of deaths caused by cannabis overdose. The independent panel did, however, state that frequent users do have an increase in the risk of vehicle accidents and the development of schizophrenia.
Dr. Bachhuber believes the lack of research into medicinal marijuana is unfortunate, as we have some research that suggests that it does work. However, he states, we need to be able to figure out what works best, what doses are best, and how long it can be safely used.
Washington still is dragging its feet, with Jeff Sessions, U.S. Attorney General, stating last week that the idea that marijuana will lower heroin dependence astonishes him and that he views legalization as allowing one drug to replace another.