Fewer opioid deaths occur in areas with legal marijuana stores, study says

LONDON — As marijuana legalization continues to spread across the United States, a new study finds stores which sell the former illegal substance may help combat the nation’s opioid crisis. Researchers from UC Davis and Yale University say areas which have medical or recreational cannabis dispensaries see fewer deaths connected to opioid use.

Opioids are morphine-like drugs which doctors prescribe for short-term pain relief. Some patients also use these powerful substances during end-of-life care. Despite their effectiveness, researchers say there is little evidence that they actually help control long-term, chronic pain. Nevertheless, opioids are still often prescribed to manage chronic pain.

Widespread misuse has led to America’s recent opioid crisis, which has resulted in countless cases of drug overdoses, drug addiction, and thousands of deaths. The study finds over 46,000 people in the U.S. died due to fentanyl use in 2018. This synthetic form of the drug has become synonymous with the opioid black market.

Legalized pot creating a safer alternative?

The new study looked at data from 812 U.S. counties across 23 states allowing legal cannabis dispensaries by the end of 2017.

Researchers combined information on state-level marijuana legislation with records on licensed dispensaries opening in these counties. They then compared the data to opioid-related death rates in those areas from 2014 to 2018.

After taking population characteristics and other factors into account, the results reveal that having more dispensaries in a state county appears to have a connection to fewer people dying from opioids in those areas. Study authors estimate increasing the number of dispensaries in a county from one to two lowers the death rate from opioids by 17 percent.

The association between these stores and synthetic opioids appears to be even stronger. Researchers say, other than methadone, the death rate due to synthetic painkillers falls by 21 percent when the number of county dispensaries jumps from one to two.

Overall, when the number of cannabis stores in a county goes from two to three, opioid deaths fall by an additional 8.5 percent.

Is cannabis really a remedy for opioid abuse?

Study authors note that their findings don’t reveal a cause for this decline. The report only observes that when states add more legal marijuana dispensaries, fewer people in those areas die from painkillers.

The team is calling for “a greater understanding of the impact of cannabis legalization on opioid misuse and public health outcomes before policy makers can weigh the potential benefits against the harms of promoting cannabis legalization.”

Researchers Greta Hsu and Balázs Kovács caution that marijuana is still a potentially harmful substance, even if it is less addictive than opioids.

Fellow scientists add cannabis liberalization “cannot be regarded as a remedy to the opioid crisis until a robust evidence base is available,” in an editorial release linked to the study.

“Such conclusions are currently premature without evidence of causality.”

The study appears in The BMJ.

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