States that have legalized marijuana have seen decreases in patients being treated for opioid use and overdoses, according to a recent study conducted by Yuyan Shi, a public health professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at University of California in San Diego. The study is one of five more well known studies that have been published linking the legalization of cannabis with lower hospitalization rates with opioid users.
The study included “state-level annual administrative records of hospital discharges during 1997–2014” that “were obtained from the State Inpatient Databases (SID),” according to records. “Linear time-series regressions” were used to analyze this data and determined whether the legalization of marijuana was a significant contributor in the reduction of opioid mishaps.
While more supporting studies will need to be conducted in order to come to a definitive conclusion regarding the benefits of legalizing marijuana in order to curtail opioid use, Shi found that there have been decreases in opioid painkiller dependence and alcohol abuse, which both dropped by nearly a quarter percent with increased legalization of medical marijuana. Hospitalization rates for opioid overdoses has also decreased by approximately 13 percent. Contrary to what was initially anticipated, there was also no evidence of increased marijuana abuse or associated hospitalizations. “This study and a few others provided some evidence regarding the potential positive benefits of legalizing marijuana to reduce opioid use and abuse, but they are still preliminary,” Shi says.
Opioids continue to be a major problem. On average, opioid overdoses claim just under one hundred Americans every day. Of the 55,000 lethal drug overdoses each year, 20,000 were related to prescription opioids, and another 13,000 due to heroin. Opioid usage is largely controlled by the pharmaceutical industry and there is a lot of money to be made by issuing prescription pills. So, discontinuing the dispensing of these drugs, which is currently at approximately 650,000 prescriptions daily in the United States alone, isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. However, the large influx of uses and opioid related deaths has caused substance abuse experts to seek out alternatives in order to save lives. Perhaps the continued legalization of cannabis is one such option.
So far, medical marijuana is legal under state law in 28 states. For pain sufferers, using marijuana effectively accomplishes the same purpose as opioids and is safer than indulging in the alternative. The substance decreases pain just the same as the prescription pills. Unfortunately, currently, opioids are still largely considered “safe” since they’re prescribed by a doctor and dispensed widely at pharmacies, while cannabis is still associated with illegality. So, there is a social stigma that needs to be overcome in order for the drug to be more widely accepted as a safer replacement option.
As more information regarding the benefits of using marijuana for pain management becomes available, this perception is likely to shift. “Public perception needs to shift, and research will help,” according to author Josh Kaplan, Ph.D. He adds, “Physicians are desperate for a more efficacious and safer long-term solution to treat their patients.” Researchers are hopeful that the recent increased push toward legalization will quickly shift the public’s option, and in turn, hopefully reduce opioid addiction and overdoses.