A new report published in the Journal of Health Economics suggests that cannabis legalization could reduce opioid deaths in the United States. The paper titled “The Impact of Cannabis Access Laws on Opioid Prescribing,” analyzed a data set of over 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions between 2011 and 2018.
Based on the data, researchers found that recreational and medical marijuana access laws reduced the number of morphine milligram equivalents prescribed each year by 11.8 and 4.2 percent, respectively. These findings suggest that rescheduling cannabis at a federal level could provide many patients with an alternative to potentially deadly opioids.
Cannabis Access Laws Lower Opioid Prescriptions
According to researchers from the University of Alabama School of Law and Vanderbilt University, cannabis access laws “also reduce the total days supply of opioids prescribed, the total number of patients receiving opioids, and the probability a provider prescribes any opioids net of any offsetting effects.”
The report found that if all states passed medical cannabis access laws in 2014, Medicaid savings would have exceeded $1 billion. Additionally, the study found that states that pass medical and recreational cannabis laws have lower mortality rates from opioid overdoses. These findings are great news for a country ravaged by the over prescription of opioids.
Researchers also found that the five medical specialties with the highest opioid prescription rate had a reduction in prescription. In states with adult-use cannabis laws, prescriptions lowered by 28 percent, while medical marijuana laws were associated with a 7-percent prescription reduction. The study says that the pattern “suggests that physicians who prescribe the most opioids are most affected by the greater availability of cannabis.”
Based on the findings, researchers concluded that “policies that reduce opioids prescriptions without leading individuals to substitute more dangerous drugs may be preferable to policies that simply restrict opioid prescriptions.” Researchers suggested that cannabis legalization could be a way to reduce opioid prescriptions, overdose, and deaths.
A Global Opioid Epidemic
The opioid crisis has reached nearly every corner of the world. In Europe, the highest levels of prescription opioid abuse are found in Northern Ireland, Finland, Estonia, Germany, and Denmark. Canada and Australia have also experienced a significant increase in the use of prescriptions that can lead to overdose deaths.
The United States has been particularly affected by this deadly epidemic. Despite just having 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes about 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply. Some states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Mexico have special provisions allowing patients with an opioid use disorder to be prescribed medical marijuana.
The problem has gotten so severe that the federal government has even awarded millions in grants for research into the benefits of cannabinoids other than THC as alternatives to prescription opioids. Below are descriptions of the nine federal cannabinoid and terpene research grant awards:
- CBD-mediated analgesic effects
- Minor cannabinoids in inflammatory and neuropathic pain
- Minor cannabinoids and terpenes as pain relievers
- Identifying the mechanisms of action for CBD on chronic arthritis pain
- Minor cannabinoids effects on new variants of cannabinoid receptor type 2
- Evaluating changes in brain chemistry in pain-processing regions using CBD
- Analgesic effects of terpenes from hops
- Anti-inflammatory potential of rare cannabinoids
- Analgesic efficacy of single and combined minor cannabinoids and terpenes
Studies Show Patients Prefer Marijuana Over Opioids
America’s opioid epidemic has spurred lawmakers and scientists to find an alternative to prescribing opioids. A May 2018 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine published a couple of studies on the association between medical and adult-use cannabis access laws and opioid prescribing in Medicare Part D.
One study compared opioid prescription trends between states with and without medical cannabis access laws between 2010 and 2015. Another study looked at opioid prescription rates covered by Medicare Part D in states with adult-use marijuana laws between 2011 and 2016.
Researchers found that states with medical marijuana laws had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids per year compared to states without these laws. In states with medical cannabis access, opioid prescriptions fell by 5.88 percent compared to other states. States with recreational cannabis laws saw a 6.38 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions per year.
Multiple states continue to fight for legal medical and recreational cannabis access laws due to the growing amount of research that shows cannabis’ therapeutic value. Cannabinoids such as CBD have also been shown to help reduce withdrawal symptoms in opioid addicts. Cannabis research continues to find that cannabis will be a major part of reducing the opioid crisis.
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