One of the more persistent arguments from pro-marijuana crowds is how legalizing weed can combat the opioid epidemic. Cannabis could be an exit drug out of opioid dependency and while maybe incapable of solving the opioid crisis, marijuana could at least be part of the solution. But a new study suggests there’s no significant link between medical marijuana laws and opioid overdose death rates.
A 2014 study generated the support for marijuana legalization in connection with decreasing opioid-related deaths. States that had medical marijuana access experienced lower opioid overdoses than the national averages. On average the difference was around 25 percent lower, according to Gizmodo. The study, which focused its attention between 1999-2010, also showed that as the years went on, the gap between opioid overdose rates in legal marijuana states vs. non-legal states grew.
However, a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates medical marijuana laws having an opposite effect. A different set of researchers decided to run a similar analysis as the scientists behind the 2014 study, but with a focus on how the change in medical marijuana laws affected opioid overdoses post-2010. In 2010, only 10 states had medical marijuana access whereas now there are 33 states that have legalized medical marijuana in some form.
That introduction of new laws between 2010 and 2017, the connection between medical marijuana laws and opioid overdoses flipped. Whereas before medical cannabis reduced opioid overdoses, researchers found that new medical marijuana laws were associated with a 23% increase in annual opioid overdoses death rates. This connection held even when researchers accounted for the levels of strictness and differences in various medical cannabis legislation amongst states.
“If you believed the results of the first study, it’s hard to argue that you don’t believe the results of the second one, since the methods are the same,” Chelsea Shover, an author on the new PNAS study, told The Atlantic.
An important takeaway from the study, however, is that researchers aren’t bashing the positive medicinal effects cannabinoids can have. Instead they emphasized other factors involving the first states to legalize medical marijuana that resulted in the first study’s conclusions. Most of those states were in the Western states, where the opioid epidemic was slow to reach. Other factors amongst those states included lower incarceration rates, better health care access, and more effective treatment options for opioid addiction and overdoses.
“Cannabinoids have demonstrated therapeutic benefits, but reducing population-level opioid overdose mortality does not appear to be among them,” the study’s authors wrote.
What this represents, scientists said, was a need for better and deeper studies around cannabis. Due to the drug’s illegal federal status, researchers have had various obstacles to manage in studying the effects of marijuana properly. One researcher who was part of the original study, Chinazo Cunningham, told The Atlantic he doesn’t dispute this new research, but does believe cannabis can play a role in treating pain management.
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“Certainly cannabis is not a silver bullet. It’s not going to fix the opioid epidemic,” she said.
“When we have any sort of conflicting data like this, we need to be able to do randomized trials of cannabis,” Cunningham added. “And with the federal government’s policies, that’s nearly impossible to do.”
Until the government changes those policies—policies that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is currently trying to reverse—we won’t know the full extent of how medical marijuana affects the opioid epidemic. This new research, however, does indicate that just legalizing cannabis won’t be enough to roll back a force as destructive as opioid overdoses.