Does Research Support the Use of Medical Marijuana for Opioid Crisis?

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The thought of legalized cannabis helping to address the opioid crisis has caused a lot of enthusiasm and hope.  Opioid misuse has declined in recent times while cannabis use has risen, simultaneously.  This is impartially due to the nation-wide liberalization of marijuana regulation laws (not ALL states).

Based on research studies, many advocates have been speaking of this connection, defending cannabis by saying that easier marijuana access reduces opioid use/misuse which reduces fatality rates.

Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana

However, a recent study urges caution.

The nation-wide movement for medical marijuana acceptance and legalization was seen as an initiative that could help curb abuse and overdose rates amongst prescription and synthetic opioid users. 

However, according to a recent study, results published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest that the legalization of medical cannabis has not reduced the rate in which opioid-induced overdoses occur.

Chelsea L. Shover, a PhD holder and staff member of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University stated:  “Medical cannabis has been touted as a solution to the U.S. opioid overdose crisis since Bachhuber et al found that from 1999 to 2010 states with medical cannabis laws experienced slower increases in opioid analgesic overdose mortality”.

Cannabis Vs Opioids

Cannabis Vs Opioids

These new data points are certainly beginning to spark conversations; national attention is ever-growing on the topic.  The correlation between legalized medical marijuana and reduced opioid overdose deaths are now headliner-worthy discussions in scientific literature and popular medical press sources.  It’s becoming the center point of discussion in the cannabis industry and amongst activists as the impact of legalized marijuana becomes more and more apparent.

Similar to another study conducted by Marcus Bachhuber, Chelsea Shover had conducted a “time-series” study of medical cannabis laws.  During this case study, Shover reviewed state-issued death certificate data across all 50 states between the years of 2010-2017.

Compared to the results of the same study held from 1999-2010, Shover and her colleagues concluded that there’s a statistical and indistinguishable reduction in the rate of opioid-induced deaths in relation to cannabis regulations.

After combining statistics of both studies, from the years of 1999-2017, it was determined that states that had passed cannabis laws actually experienced a 22.7% rise in overdose deaths.

Marijuana Medical

Marijuana Medical

Shover stated later that while the data from 2008-2012 could’ve produced results similar to that of the findings of Bachhuber’s study, by the time 2013 came around, that correlation soon became ambiguous.  By 2017, data from Shover’s study suggested the exact opposite of Bachhuber’s findings.

Those involved in Shover’s study attribute these differences to better economical affluence, liberal political leadership, incarceration rates for marijuana-related offenses, and easier access to naloxone during the “old” study.

“We are more cautious than others have been in drawing causal conclusions from ecological correlations and conclude that the observed association between these two phenomena is likely spurious rather than a reflection of medical cannabis saving lives 10 years ago and killing people today”, stated Shover and her study colleagues.

Overall, researchers, including Shover, are hoping these findings don’t discourage future research on medical cannabis.

There are many valid reasons that we should pursue policies for medical cannabis.  However, based on results it seems that policymakers need to focus efforts on solutions that don’t involve the use of cannabis to reduce the mortality rate of opioid overdoses.