Study: Medical Cannabis May Not Be Panacea to Prevent Opioid-Related Deaths

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It has often been touted by medical cannabis advocates that states with medical cannabis laws see a statistical reduction in opioid-related deaths, and there is some evidence to support this claim; however, a recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation and the University of California, Irvine, calls into question this assumption and paints a more complex picture.

Published on Feb. 6, 2018, the study found that opioid-related deaths were only lower in medical cannabis states that provided easy access to medical cannabis vis-à-vis medical dispensaries. Researchers found this relationship diminished as state’s began enacting tighter regulations on dispensary sales.

To come to these conclusions, researchers analyzed treatment admissions for addiction to pain medications from 1999 to 2012 and state-level overdose deaths from opioids from 1999 to 2013. When examining the data through 2010, researchers found a 20% decline in opioid-related deaths in states with medical cannabis laws compared to states without.

However, when researchers analyzed the data through 2013, that relationship almost completely diminished, even in states with dispensaries. Researchers posit that this may be because states enacted stricter medical cannabis laws, due in part to the now rescinded Cole Memo, and also because the main driver of opioid-related deaths post-2010 were related to illicit opioids like fentanyl and heroin.

The information analyzed in the study was captured before states began legalizing recreational marijuana, which is important to note because research has shown that states like Colorado saw a drop in opioid-related deaths following recreational legalization.

In regards to medical cannabis, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, co-author of this latest study and co-director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, explained that it may not be as simple of a solution to the opioid crisis that many have touted it to be.

“Our research suggests that the overall story between medical marijuana and opioid deaths is complicated,” Pacula said. “Before we embrace marijuana as a strategy to combat the opioid epidemic, we need to fully understand the mechanism through which these laws may be helping and see if that mechanism still matters in today’s changing opioid crisis.”

William Sumner, a freelance writer and marijuana journalist, was a staff writer for MJINews from May 2014 through February 2018. You can follow him on Twitter @W_Sumner.

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