Legalizing marijuana for recreational use could lead to fewer opioid-spurred health emergencies and overdose deaths, a University of Pittsburgh study has found.
Opioid-related emergency department visits dropped by 7.6% within a year of cannabis legalization for adult residents in four states — California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts, according to the analysis led by Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health.
Lead study author Coleman Drake said the research does not point to cannabis legalization as “the silver bullet” to stemming the opioid epidemic — but it could be “another arrow in the quivers” of policymakers to combat the broader crisis.
“It suggests that recreational cannabis legalization could be an effective tool to help not only reduce opioid use, but also to reduce the health implications that stem from opioid use, one of them being overdoses,” said Drake, assistant professor in Pitt’s Department of Health Policy and Management. “That’s potentially exciting and promising.”
The study did not examine data from Pennsylvania, where only medical marijuana has been available since 2016 — though legislative efforts are brewing to change that. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now allow recreational marijuana use, with New York, New Mexico, Virginia and Connecticut among the latest to do so this year.
“I would hope that policymakers in states that have not yet legalized recreational cannabis would take a look at this closely,” Drake said.
Not a ‘gateway drug’
The study’s findings further add to mounting peer-reviewed evidence that marijuana, at least once legalized, does not pose the threat of a so-called “gateway drug” that leads to harder drug use — an argument lodged by Pennsylvania GOP leaders opposed to broad legalization.
“Our state is in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Gov. Wolf signed a disaster declaration over the crisis and renewed the declaration