Cannabis Access Mitigates Opioid Abuse — The Science Says So 

Ample scientific evidence exists supporting the contention that cannabis mitigates opioid abuse, dependency, hospitalizations and mortality. It is unfortunate this literature was not given strong consideration by New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher, who appears to have placed ideology above evidence.


• A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that states where medical cannabis was legal experienced year-over-year declines in opioid-related overdose deaths compared to those states where marijuana remained illegal. Authors determined, “Examination of the association between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in each year after implementation of the law showed that such laws were associated with a lower rate of overdose mortality that generally strengthened over time: year 1 (−19.9 percent), year 2 (−25.2 percent), year 3 (−23.6 percent), year 4 (−20.2 percent), [and] year 5 (−33.7 percent).”

• A 2015 report by The RAND Corporation found that “states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.”

• A 2016 study published in The Journal of Pain determined that chronic pain patients reduce their use of opioids by more than 60 percent after initiating medical cannabis therapy. A separate study published that same year in The Clinical Journal of Pain similarly reported a 44 percent decrease in prescription opioids among pain patients provided medicinal cannabis.

• A 2017 study published in The Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence reported that opioid-related emergency room visits fall significantly following the enactment of medical marijuana regulations. “Medical marijuana legalization was associated with 23 percent and 13 percent reductions in hospitalizations related to opioid dependence or abuse and opioid pain reliever overdose, respectively,” authors concluded.

• A 2017 economic analysis published in the journal Health Affairs concluding that patients spend significantly less on prescription opioids in medical cannabis states as compared to those jurisdictions where the plant remains illegal.

Studies also indicate that cannabis can play a positive role in opioid dependent subjects seeking treatment.

For example:

• A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Addiction determined that the moderate use of cannabis “improved retention on naltrexone treatment” in opioid dependent patients. The findings replicated those of a 2001 study in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, which concluded, “Intermittent use of non-opiate drugs is common during outpatient treatment for opiate dependence and may be a favorable prognostic indicator.”

• A 2010 study published in the journal Addiction found that cannabis use did not adversely impact opioid drug treatment. It concluded, “Cannabinoid-positive urines need not be a major focus of clinical attention during treatment for opiate dependence.”

• A 2015 study published in the journal Drugs and Alcohol Dependence reported that participants who consumed marijuana were more likely to successfully complete drug treatment for opioid abuse. Investigators opined that cannabis reduced subjects’ severity of opiate withdrawal.

With opioid overdose deaths having risen fourfold since 1999, it is imperative that lawmakers and public health experts approach this issue with an open mind and be willing to entertain all potential alternatives.

For many patients, cannabis provides a safe and effective substitute for the use of opioids and other potentially harmful substances. In jurisdictions where cannabis access is legally regulated, there has been a decline in opioid-related abuse, hospitalizations and mortality. Public officials need to set their political ideologies aside and give strong consideration to this rapidly growing body of scientific evidence.

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