Medical marijuana is legal in twenty-three states and Washington D.C. now. Five states legalized some amount of medical marijuana in 2016 alone, and West Virginia joined the crowd just this year. The growing number of states that offer patients the option of legal marijuana has allowed researchers to study the effects of this legalization.
In a recent study, researchers studied records from the past fifteen years from twenty-seven states, nine of which offered legal medical marijuana. Rates of opioid-related hospitalizations dropped 13% overall. But in the nine states with legalized marijuana, the rates of opioid-related hospitalizations dropped 23%.
Other studies have pointed to a similar trend. In a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found a 25% decline in opium use. In an article published in the July 2016 issue of Health Affairs showed that doctors in states with medical marijuana prescribed fewer painkillers to their patients.
Opioid pain relievers, especially oxycontin and vicodin, are frequently pointed to as major contributing factors to the opioid crisis. Patients experiencing chronic pain, as well as patients who have recently undergone surgery, are frequently prescribed these drugs to minimize the pain they are experiencing.
Sometimes these painkilling drugs are necessary to stave off severe pain, but overall they are likely overprescribed. After all, doctors don’t want to refuse pain relief to patients who claim to be suffering. But as a result, the number of oxycontin and vicodin prescriptions has quadrupled since 1999.
Opioids are highly effective pain relievers, but patients who take them are at risk of becoming dependant. The longer patients stay on the drugs, the greater the risk becomes.
Opioid addiction kills 91 Americans daily. Marijuana, although its use must still be carefully monitored, does not seem to be either as dangerous, or as addictive. And despite concern about increased marijuana-related hospitalizations in states that have legalized medical marijuana, this concern does not play out in the research.
These studies on the influence of marijuana on decreasing opioid addiction are still preliminary, and no matter what, medical marijuana is not going to be the only solution. But widespread legalization could certainly play a major part in a multi-prong approach to fighting addiction.