When Colorado decided to legalize marijuana, it caused a “reversal” of sorts. Opioid overdose rates, particularly fatalities, began declining throughout the state. This is according to new data published in the American Journal of Public Health, which lists the study’s authors as Alexander C. Wagenaar, Chris Delcher, Tracey E. Barnett and Melvin D. Livingston.
According to this research team, “After Colorado’s legalization of recreational cannabis sale and use, opioid-related deaths decreased more than six percent in the following two years.” That is a notable statistic. However, the study’s authors warn that the results of their research are preliminary and only encompass data for the first two years after the state opened its first adult use pot shops back in 2014.
Despite there being numerous studies showing a direct association between legalizing medical marijuana and decreasing opioid overdose fatalities, this study is among the first to analyze the influence that recreational marijuana laws have on opioid deaths. Cannabis is a highly effective treatment for many of the same types of severe pain for which doctors prescribe opiates so freely.
It appears that, when given a choice between cannabis and prescription opiates, more and more patients are choosing the healthier first option. From the perspective of public health, this positive development is extremely good news. Considering that in comparison to opioids, cannabis has yet to kill anyone; it in fact carries zero risk of a lethal overdose.
Now, the recent research that the American Journal of Public Health published suggests that the same findings may be true for the legalization of recreational use. The team of researchers’ analyzed trends in Colorado for monthly opioid overdose deaths both before and after the state opened its recreational cannabis market in 2014.
Their goal was to isolate specifically the effect of recreational, not medical, cannabis by comparing the State of Colorado to the State of Nevada, which had legal medical marijuana laws but not recreational ones during that same timeframe. They study’s authors also adjusted for a change that occurred in Colorado’s prescription drug monitoring program during the period of their study.
That change involved mandating all doctors prescribing opioids to register with, but not necessarily to use, the state’s prescription drug-monitoring program in 2014. After controlling for both this change in the monitoring of opioids and medical marijuana, the study revealed that, overall, after implementing its adult use laws for marijuana, opioid fatalities fell by 6.5 percent in Colorado within the next two years.
According to the authors, policymakers should prioritize watching these statistics closely in the coming years to establish if the trend continues at a declining rate. They also have interest in seeing if their results replicate themselves in other states that recently implemented recreational cannabis programs, such as in Oregon and Washington.
However, the researchers note that while legal cannabis may be reducing opioid deaths in states that allow it, fatalities may be on the rise elsewhere because of legal pot laws, such as on Colorado’s roads, for example. Nevertheless, the study adds evidence to the growing body of research indicating that making marijuana available could mitigate the toll of the nation’s opiate crisis, which kills tens of thousands in the United States alone every year.