Could cannabis fix the U.S. opioid crisis?

August 26, 2019

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts shows that making cannabis legal for recreational use could lead to a sharp decrease in the amount of opioid deaths in the U.S. The study, which was published in the journal Economic Inquiry, looked at the increasing legalisation of cannabis across the United States in conjunction with the rising number of opioid deaths. Researchers found that the more access people had to legal cannabis, fewer people died from opioid deaths.

In states where medical cannabis use is only authorised with a card or prescription, cannabis use was linked with an average of 1-1.27 fewer deaths among 100,000 annually, translating to around 50-60 deaths per 5 million people.  In sharp contrast, states that had legalized recreational cannabis saw a 20%-35% decrease in opioid deaths. While the study could not pinpoint the exact mechanism that was responsible for the reduction in opioid overdoses, researchers pointed to the accessibility of legal cannabis in each state and the abundance of legal cannabis dispensaries.

“States with legal access to marijuana were far less affected by the opioid mortality boom of the past decade than those without.”

The study’s authors highlighted the need for further research, they did propose the question of whether people with legal access to recreational cannabis are more likely to use cannabis for pain management, over highly addictive prescription opioids. With fewer barriers in place to access legal cannabis, it is possible that more people can use cannabis for pain relief who may not have qualified for a medical cannabis card under a more restrictive regime.

Opioid Deaths in the U.S.

The War on Drugs seems to have finally turned its attention towards the opioid crisis ravaging the United States, through the abuse of prescription drugs and illegal heroin.  Over the last year, the family who own Purdue Pharma – the makers of opioid drug Oxycontin – were accused of intentionally engineering the opioid crisis for their own financial gain. The primary ingredient of OxyContin is oxycodone, which is chemically related to heroin and several times stronger than morphine.

Several lawsuits brought against the Sackler family say they aggressively marketed their own “opioid addiction treatment,” with Richard Sackler being quoted as calling for a “blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition.” By employing ruthless and misleading marketing, prosecutors have accused the Sackler family pushing OxyContin on patients who either didn’t need it or giving patients inflated doses to make the drug more addictive over time.  In a 2017 piece uncovering the extent of the family’s reach, the New Yorker stated that Purdue Pharma funded research to support OxyContin, and even paid doctors to say that concerns over opioid addictions were blown out of proportion.

It is estimated that the Sackler family have amassed a $13 billion fortune from OxyContin. Over the last twenty years, over 200,000 Americans have died as a result of overdosing on OxyContin and other prescription opioids.  Currently, 33 states have legalised cannabis in some capacity, while 11 states including the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis use.

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