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Colorado Study Links Marijuana Legalization to Decline In Fatal Opioid Overdoses

Overdose deaths increased annually from 2000 to 2013 but have declined 6 percent since marijuana was legalized.

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Legalized marijuana has created a robust new industry for entrepreneurs, jobs in the states where it is legal and huge chunks of tax revenue for local governments.

Chris Hondros | Getty Images

Now, a new study in Colorado has found that marijuana may also play a role in cutting down the number of deaths from opioid overdose.

That information flies in the face of rhetoric from marijuana opponents, including U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who called the effects of marijuana “only slightly less awful” than that of heroin.

Opioid-related deaths from both heroin and prescription opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On average, 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. Marijuana has not led to one officially recorded overdose. And the study indicates it may actually have a hand in preventing them.

The conclusion of the study, published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, states the case plainly: “Legalization of cannabis in Colorado was associated with short-term reductions in opioid-related deaths.”

Related: Nevada Has a Legal Marijuana Shortage But Still Expects $120 Million In New Revenue

6 Percent Decrease

University professors Melvin D. Livingston, Tracey E. Barnett, Chris Delcher and Alexander C. Wagenaar wrote the study. Livingston and Barnett are with North Texas State University, while Belcher is with the University of Florida and Wagenaar is with Emory University.

The study set out to find if there is a correlation in opioid-related deaths and legalization of cannabis. Researchers looked at opioid-related deaths in Colorado between 2000 and 2015, giving them data on such deaths before and after the state began recreational marijuana sales in 2014.

They found a 6 percent drop overall in the number of opioid overdose deaths in the two years following legalization. Not only that, but the lower number of such deaths in 2014 and 2015 reversed an upward trend that had progressed every year since 2000.

While the findings are preliminary, given only two years of data since adult-use cannabis became legal in Colorado, the numbers show a connection between legalized recreational marijuana and reduced opioid overdoses. The researchers recommended that “as additional data become available, research should replicate these analyses in other states with legal recreational cannabis.”

Related: Researchers Amazed by Cases of Cannabis Helping Children Failed by Conventional Medicine

Another option for pain.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some people prefer marijuana for chronic pain rather than using prescription painkillers containing opioids. Celebrities ranging from Snoop Dogg to Olivia Newton-John advocate use of marijuana for pain and other medical conditions.

Sports figures also have pushed to have the rules changed in many of the major league sports, allowing for players to use marijuana rather than prescription drugs for pain management.

Researchers with the Colorado study said those involved with formulating policies and laws should keep a close eye on further research to see if the trend found in the study is replicated elsewhere. Other possible states for study include Oregon and Washington, which joined Colorado as among the first to allow a regulated recreational marijuana industry.

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