New Findings Raise Doubts Whether Legal Weed Reduces Opioid Deaths

Fluctuations in total overdose deaths appear unrelated to legal cannabis access.
New Findings Raise Doubts Whether Legal Weed Reduces Opioid Deaths
Image credit: via Benzinga
3 min read
This story originally appeared on Benzinga

study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy is pushing back on the line of thinking that medical marijuana could lower the number of opioid overdoses.

The findings.

States with medical marijuana laws showed slower increases in opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2010, but that's no longer the case, according to the study. "For end dates between 2008 and 2012, the association was negative ... subsequently, the association became statistically indistinguishable from zero before turning positive in 2017."

The association between state medical cannabis laws and opioid overdoses has reversed direction from negative 21 percent to positive 23 percent and remained positive after factoring in recreational cannabis laws, the study's authors said. "We find it unlikely that medical cannabis -- used by about 2.5 percent of the U.S. population -- has exerted large conflicting effects on opioid overdose mortality. A more plausible interpretation is that this association is spurious."

While research into cannabis' therapeutic potential should go on, claims that medical cannabis laws will cut back on opioid ODs "should be met with skepticism," the study said.

Related: Illinois Makes it Legal to Replace Opioids with Marijuana

Viewpoints of two doctors.

Dr. Patricia Frye, chief medical officer for HelloMD, disagrees with the study findings. "In states that have passed medical cannabis, opioid death rates have decreased by about 25 percent. When cannabis is introduced into a pain management regimen, the opioid dose can be reduced by 50-75 percent due to cross activity between the opioid and cannabinoid receptors," she said.

study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 supports such claims. Dr. Deni Carise, the chief scientific officer at Recovery Centers of America, said the findings in that 2014 study were not as clear as one may think.

"The study did not prove that greater legal availability of marijuana caused lower opioid-related mortality, just that they were correlated, something that even the authors of the 2014 JAMA study pointed out. Unfortunately, marijuana advocates took the idea and ran with it,” Carise said.

The latest study results on marijuana and opioids don't necessarily mean that medical cannabis laws first saved lives before contributing to overdoses, Carise said. "This too is a correlation, not necessarily causality."

Related: A Plea to Our Elders: Consider Medical Marijuana Before Opioids

A wait-and-see approach.

Other professionals are waiting for more information before drawing any conclusions. Dr. Nikola Djordjevic is a practicing physician in Serbia and is the founder of MedAlertHelp.

“It will take a long time, maybe generations, for opioids to be phased out in favor of safer, more natural alternatives. As it stands now, opioids are regularly abused for non-therapeutic reasons and are available on the black market," he said.

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