Medical Marijuana Reduces Opioid Abuse In States Where Cannabis Is Legal

In states where medical cannabis is legal, new research indicates that drivers are less likely to abuse opioids. A study done by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health found that 18 states with legal medical marijuana had fewer fatal car accidents related to opioid abuse in comparison to states without legalized weed.

"We would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain," said June H. Kim, a doctoral student at the Mailman School of Public Health and the study's lead author.

States with legal medical marijuana see less opioid-related car accidents.
The number fatal car accidents related to opioid use is less in states where medical marijuana is legal. [Image by John Cowpland/Getty Images]

The study is the first ever to compare the relationship between medical cannabis laws and opioid use. The researchers were trying to find out how newly enacted marijuana laws might affect the use of painkillers like oxycodone and hydrocodone.

"A study that came out a few years ago suggested that states with medical marijuana laws have a reduced rate of opioid overdoses," Kim said. "I thought that if these laws were actually reducing overdoses, we should expect to see a similar reduction in opioid use."

Examining data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System collected between 1999 and 2013, researcher reviewed toxicological test results from 69,000 drivers involved in lethal car accidents. Deceased drivers between the ages 21 to 40 were half as likely to test positive for opioids in states where medical cannabis is legal, compared to similarly aged drivers in states where marijuana is unlawful.

The findings support what is commonly known about the demographics of the typical patient that uses medical marijuana. While some states are just recently seeing an increase in the age of patients, most medical cannabis users are under the age of 45 and older than 21.

Jason Hockenberry, a professor with the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, criticized the study. Saying it was "a bit of a mess," the study results could be explained by an assortment of possibilities. According to him, the data did not include any drivers who were using marijuana prior to the accident and "any benefits of medical marijuana need to be balanced against the negative effects of marijuana, which are not trivial."

Associate professor of Health Policy and Management at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Brendan Saloner said the sample of deceased drivers does not properly represent "the population as a whole." While he does somewhat agree that legal medical marijuana laws may reduce opioid abuse, "risky behaviors including impaired driving" could cause more harm than good.

Use of opioids decrease in state with legal medical marijuana.
Various studies suggest use of prescription painkillers decreases in states that have legalized medical cannabis. [Image by John Moore/Getty Images]

The new study strengthens the idea that patients will use medical cannabis in states where it is available, instead of prescription painkillers. Earlier this year, a study revealed that Medicare Part D prescriptions for painkillers substantially dropped in states where medical marijuana can be legally obtained. There is also mounting evidence that states with legal medical cannabis also see a significant decline in the number of deaths related to opioid abuse.

Medical cannabis is not the only natural drug that may help fight opioid abuse. Kratom, a popular herb supplement derived from the leaves of a tree native to Southeast Asia, has gained momentum as an alternative to prescription painkillers among opioid addicts.

According to advocates of the supplement, Kratom helps relieve pain without the health and addiction risks of opioids. However, as recently reported by the Inquisitr, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has issued a ban on the substance that starts October 1.

Currently legal in 25 states and Washington, D.C., cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I drug by the U.S. government. While no overdose deaths from medical marijuana have ever been recorded, nearly 19,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2014.

[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]