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Study: Legal Weed Leads to a Drop in Opioid-Related Emergency Room Visits

This is "a welcome public health development," says the study's lead author.

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A new study finds that legal states experience an immediate, although temporary, drop in the number of opioid-related visits to the emergency room. It's the latest research to explore the relationship between legal cannabis and opioid use.

Published in Health Economics, the study from the University of Pittsburgh found a steep drop in emergency room visits related to opioid overdose in the six months after legalization. And even after six months, statistics indicated access to legal cannabis did not relate to any increase in the number of opioid-related trips to the emergency room.

In a statement about the study, lead author Coleman Drake, who holds a Ph.D. and works as an assistant professor in the university's Public Health's Department of Health Policy and Management, said the study shows cannabis legalization is "not likely a panacea." But, he said, people should not downplay the six-month decrease.

"This isn't trivial—a decline in opioid-related emergency department visits, even if only for six months, is a welcome public health development," he said.

RELATED: Study: The More Dispensaries a County Has, the Fewer Opioid-Related Deaths

 

The opioid crisis continues to ravage the U.S.

So many studies focus on the impact of cannabis on opioid use because of the extent of the opioid issue. The number of deaths related to the use of psychostimulants, which includes opioids and methamphetamines, now exceeds deaths related to cocaine.

Even as the public has focused attention on the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid crisis has continued in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2020, the number of opioid overdose deaths increased in 2020 as the pandemic raged across the country.

Overall, the CDC reported 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the 12 months that ended in May 2020. That's the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 12 months. Opioids, particularly illicitly manufactured fentanyl, are one of the main drivers of the increase. The number of opioid-related deaths during the 12 months increased 38.4 percent

Opioids are designed to reduce pain intensity by working in the body's nervous system or in specific receptors in the brain. While prescription drugs contribute to opioid-related deaths every year, most deaths involve fentanyl, according to the CDC.

Overall, about 841,000 people have died since 1999 from a drug overdose in the U.S.

RELATED: Can Cannabis Help Treat Opioid Addiction?

 

Less opioid-related emergency room visits

The University of Pittsburgh study looked at four recreational cannabis states: California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada. Researchers used data from 25 other states without legal cannabis as a control group.

They found that the four states experienced a 7.6 percent drop in opioid-related emergency room visits in the first six months after legal cannabis went on sale when compared to the control group states.

The researcher found that the drop occurred primarily with men between the ages of 25 and 44. As noted in the study, this makes sense given that men in this age group "account for the majority of people using cannabis."

The researcher also saw significance in the fact that even after the six-month drop, cannabis did not contribute to an increase in opioid-related emergency room visits. That shows marijuana does not serve as a "gateway" drug to other forms of drug use, the researchers wrote.

In the statement on the study, researchers said the findings are "good news for state policymakers." They wrote: "States can fight the opioid epidemic by expanding access to opioid use disorder treatment and by decreasing opioid use with recreational cannabis laws. These policies aren't mutually exclusive; rather, they're both a step in the right direction."

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