As more states legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use, hopes were raised that wider availability of legal cannabis would help ease the opioid overdose epidemic, but some of the latest findings do not provide definitive answers, experts say.
Some thought cannabis could offer an alternative to opioids for treating chronic pain and therefore reduce opioid overdoses and deaths. Others believed cannabis also might help people with opioid use disorder to curb the addiction.
But research over the years has yielded mixed results, according to the experts.
A study published this week in Health Economics found that the implementation of recreational marijuana laws in 2017 was associated with a decline in opioid-related emergency department visits — but that decline did not persist after six months.
Researchers observed this trend after studying data from 29 states, including four — California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — that implemented the laws in 2017. Those four states saw a 7.6 percent reduction in opioid-related emergency department visits for six months after the laws went into effect.
The researchers concluded that while recreational cannabis laws may offer some help in fighting the opioid crisis, they are “likely not a panacea.” They noted that about a third of Americans now live in a state with a recreational cannabis law. Yet during the pandemic, overdose deaths from opioid use rose by more than a third to 69,000 in 2020, according to provisional data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug overdose deaths overall reached a record 93,000 last year.
Study author Coleman Drake, an assistant professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh, said some people may have turned to marijuana instead