Ever since it was revealed a few years back that prescription painkiller use was down in states where medical marijuana was legal, there has been some hope that the herb might be part of the solution to the opioid epidemic. So much, in fact, that some states, like Illinois and New York, have even passed laws in recent months allowing patients to use medical cannabis as a substitute for painkillers.
But is there really any truth to the idea that marijuana could be a saving grace for the tens of thousands of people who die every year as a result of opioid overdose?
According to researchers at Columbia University, probably not. They have found that while more Americans are using medical marijuana these days than ever before, they are also popping more, not less, opioid drugs. And they are not just using these medications as directed by a physician, but misusing them in ways that could lead them down a dark path to addiction and put them at risk for an overdose.
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The study, which was based on an analysis of 70,000 U.S. citizens aged 12 and up, shows that hardcore opioid users are not the ones gravitating towards medical marijuana as an alternative to their vice.
These people are also not at any lower risk of succumbing to a deadly overdose.
In other words, people out there using heroin or even engaging in the recreational use of pain pills are not likely going to be saved with medical marijuana.
“Other studies that found an inverse association between medical marijuana enactment and opioid-outcomes did not measure opioid-outcomes for individuals,” lead researcher Dr. Silvia Martins told The Daily Mail.
This is not the first time research has shown that medical marijuana may not be a salvation’s wing for the opioid problem.
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A recent study from Stanford University shows that opioid overdose deaths have actually increased in states with medical marijuana laws on the books. The study shocked and even silence a lot of the cannabis community. Some advocacy zealots have even chosen to completely disregard the findings.
But what makes this piece of research so credible is it is based on the same methods as the highly-cited University of Pennsylvania study from 2014 showing opioid reductions in medical marijuana states. The consensus among Stanford researchers is that while there may have been a decrease in opioid prescriptions between 1999-2010, the narrative changed drastically over the past decade.
“If you believed the results of the first study, it’s hard to argue that you don’t believe the results of the second one, since the methods are the same,” Chelsea Shover, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, told The Atlantic.
But it’s not all bad news for medical marijuana. Researchers at Columbia say that although it seems unlikely that cannabis can save people ravaged by the grips of opioid addiction, it might be able to stop more of them from going down that path. It is conceivable, they say, that if medicinal cannabis is prescribed as part of a pain management program from day one that many patients may never need to experience opioids in the first place. So instead of a trapdoor out of opioid addiction, maybe we should be looking at cannabis as a preventative measure, researchers said.
‘Our findings may suggest that medical marijuana policies could be insufficient to reduce individual-level opioid outcomes and that opioid-specific approaches and policy interventions such as prescription drug monitoring programs, and laws on prescribing practices are needed,’ Martins said.