While cannabis has been castigated as a ‘gateway’ drug that can lead to the abuse of more potent drugs like cocaine or heroin, a new study has found a connection between the legalization of the drug and lower hospitalization rates for opioid abuse.
Published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the new study is based on hospital discharges between 1997 and 2014 that were documented on state-level administrative databases for 27 states, which covered around 97 percent of all hospital discharges for each state.
The paper examined the average quantity of hospitalizations brought on by opioid use in states with lawful medical marijuana to average opioid-related hospitalizations in states where medical marijuana is still against the law.
Reducing a Dangerous Community Problem
From every 1000 discharges in states where medical marijuana is legal, hospitalizations brought on by opioid dependence and abuse fell by 23 percent and hospitalizations due to opioid overdoses fell by 11 percent.
The study also revealed opioid dependence and abuse hospitalizations fell by 13 percent and opioid overdose hospitalizations dropped by 11 percent in states where medical marijuana dispensaries were in up and running.
Incidentally, hospitalizations brought on by marijuana use did not increase in states with medical marijuana legalization policies.
Study author Yuyan Shi, an assistant professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California in San Diego, said her findings validated other studies indicating that marijuana use could be a viable strategy to ease the opioid epidemic.
“These findings were supported by the recent studies that reported reduced prescription medications, OPR overdose mortality, opioid positivity among young and middle-aged fatally injured drivers, and substance abuse treatment admissions in association with medical marijuana legalization,” Shi wrote in her report.
The UC San Diego researcher’s report also noted that the study does not definitively demonstrate that marijuana is the best treatment to halt opioid abuse. Rather, its conclusions should spur further investigation, Shi wrote.
“It is still premature to advocate medical marijuana legalization as a strategy to curb the OPR abuse and overdose epidemic, but the policymakers should take into consideration these positive unintended consequences while legalizing medical marijuana,” the report said. “The findings presented in this study merit further investigations especially those to understand the causal pathways.”
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