Two studies published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine find that the availability of medical and recreational marijuana is linked to lower rates of opiate prescribing.
In the first study, Hefei Wen of the University of Kentucky and Jason Hockenberry of Emory University found that the passage of medical and recreational marijuana laws were followed by reductions in Medicaid opiate prescription rates of 5.88 percent and 6.38 percent, respectively.
“Marijuana liberalization may serve as a component of a comprehensive package to tackle the opioid epidemic,” Wen and Hockenberry concluded.
In the second study, Ashley Bradford, David Bradford and Amanda Abraham of the University of Georgia found that at the state level, medical marijuana laws were associated with an 8.5 percent reduction in the number of daily opioid doses filled under Medicare Part D, relative to states without medical marijuana laws. Reductions were even higher (amounting to 14.4 percent) for states that allowed medical marijuana dispensaries, while states that allowed home marijuana cultivation had 6.9 percent reductions in opiate prescriptions.
“These findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids,” the authors concluded.
The studies are the latest in a long line of research showing that marijuana availability is associated with reductions in opiate use and misuse. But the Wen and Hockenberry report is significant for finding a link between recreational marijuana and opiate use – most previous research has focused on medical marijuana.
There is widespread agreement among doctors and public health experts that marijuana is effective at treating chronic pain. Doctors often treat that condition with opiate medication, despite little evidence that opiates are actually effective for it.
“Marijuana is one of the potential alternative drugs that can provide relief from pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose,” Wen and Hockenberry write. “These findings suggest that medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose.”
In a speech in New Hampshire last month outlining the administration’s plan to deal with a nationwide opiate overdose crisis that claimed over 42,000 lives in 2016, President Donald Trump called on researchers to “come up with a painkiller that’s not so addictive.” The latest studies suggest that such a painkiller already exists – it is called marijuana, and it is legal for medical use in 29 states and for recreational use in nine states plus D.C.
But the Trump administration has taken an adversarial stance toward states that have legalized marijuana in some fashion. The Justice Department rescinded an Obama-era policy of noninterference for state-legal marijuana operations, and the attorney general has expressed an interest in prosecuting medical marijuana providers.
If the latest research is any indication, those actions might simply make the opioid epidemic even worse.