Cannabis Legalization Decreases Opioid-Related Emergencies

Recent study shows that cannabis legalization reduced opioid-related emergency visits to young and old men.

According to a study sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, states that legalize recreational marijuana see a short-term decrease in opioid-related emergency department visits, especially among men ranging 25 to 44 years of age.

The study published by the Health Economics journal found that recreational cannabis legislation is not linked to a rise in opioid-related emergency department visits, even after the temporary decrease wears off.

“This isn’t insignificant—even if it’s only for six months, a decrease in opioid-related emergency department visits is a positive public health development,” said Coleman Drake, Ph.D.

“However, while cannabis legalization may contribute to the fight against the opioid epidemic, it is unlikely to be a panacea,” the assistant professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Health Policy and Management added.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention responds that the opioid epidemic in the United States has escalated—with about 81,000 drug overdose deaths between June 2019 and May 2020: the most significant number ever recorded in a single year.

In addition, 19 states have legalized recreational cannabis, which means that over half of the population of the United States lives in a place where it is legal.

Opioid-Related Emergency Visits Recalled

Between 2011 and 2017, Drake and his colleagues studied opioid-related emergency department visits from 29 states. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada were among the four states that legalized recreational marijuana during that period. The remaining 25 states were used as checkpoints.

Compared to states without such laws, the four states with recreational cannabis legislation saw a 7.6% reduction in opioid-related emergency department visits six months after the law went into effect.

However, on closer analysis, the team discovered that the decline was predominantly driven by men and people aged 25 to 44. Because past studies have shown that men and young adults make up the bulk of cannabis users, the researchers believe the recreational regulations will meaningfully impact them.

Although the decrease in opioid-related emergency department visits does not last longer than six months, Drake believes it is optimistic that holidays do not rise above baseline when recreational marijuana legislation is passed. This suggests that recreational marijuana does not act as a “gateway” drug to opioids.

Drake: Marijuana Legalization is Irrevelant to Data

“We can’t say why these laws are linked to a brief decrease in opioid-related emergency department visits based on the data,” Drake said. “Based on our findings, we assume that people who use opioids for pain treatment are substituting cannabis, at least temporarily.”

“[It] can help people who are addicted to opioids feel better, but it is not a cure for opioid addiction. Nonetheless, this is encouraging news for state officials. States can combat the opioid epidemic by increasing access to treatment for opioid use disorders and reducing opioid usage through recreational cannabis laws. These policies aren’t mutually exclusive; instead, they’re both positive steps forward.”

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