Examining Policy: Medical Marijuana
In recent years, public support for marijuana legalization has experienced tremendous growth. According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans favor legalization, while 44 percent are opposed. Four states have legalized marijuana while 14 have decriminalized possession of limited quantities. Activists support recreational legalization for a variety of reasons, but I’m not here to write a piece on the pros and cons of such use. Instead, I’d like to explore how medicinal marijuana is helping to combat the opioid crisis.
Over the past two decades, 25 states have legalized medical marijuana and 19 allow patients to purchase from a dispensary with a prescription. As it relates to the opioid epidemic, proponents of medical legalization claim that marijuana could act as a substitute for powerful and addictive prescription opioids. In turn, this should lead to reductions in opioid abuse, addiction and overdose. In contrast, opponents claim that the harms of medical marijuana outweigh the benefits, and that the uncertainty surrounding the health implications of the substance is too great. So, who’s right? We again turn to scientific evidence to help us resolve this issue.
A 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that states with legally protected marijuana dispensaries, or LMDs, had lower opioid-induced fatality rates. Additionally, the researchers found that these effects grew over time. In the first year of legalization, fatal overdoses decreased by 20 percent, and, after six years, rates had declined by 33 percent.
Similarly, a 2015 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that the introduction of LMDs was associated with a 16 percent to 31 percent reduction in fatal opioid overdoses. Furthermore, entry into opioid addiction treatment programs fell by an average of about 32 percent in states with LMDs. The authors noted that these results were most likely due to a substitution away from nonmedical opioid use to medical marijuana.
Lastly, a study published this July in Health Affairs discovered that allowing access to medical marijuana significantly affected opioid prescribing patterns among Medicare recipients. The researchers found that states with medical marijuana laws had lower opioid prescribing and usage rates relative to states lacking such measures.
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