An important new study just published in the journal Preventive Medicine says medical marijuana legalization is helping to reduce opioid prescription rates. There’s still considerable debate among the health researchers and the medical community about whether cannabis can be an effective replacement for opioid medications or whether it can help people struggling with opioid use disorders beat addiction and stay alive. But researchers in Texas say that when it comes to lowering opioid prescription rates, medical cannabis legalization seems to be working. Put otherwise, making medical marijuana legal seems to be lowering the number of patients for whom doctors are prescribing opioids.
Study Looks at How Medical Marijuana Impacts Opioid Prescriptions
Over the past several years, interest in the ways cannabis might join the fight against the US opioid epidemic has exploded. From laboratories to legislative chambers, researchers and policymakers have looked to medical marijuana as one way to reduce the use of opioids and minimize their wide-reaching harm. Still, the relationship between cannabis legalization, cannabis use and opioids isn’t very well understood.
But a just-published study, titled “Association between cannabis laws and opioid prescriptions among privately insured adults in the US,” shines a light on the ways the medical marijuana legalization might be impacting patients’ use of prescription opioids. The study analyzed how different cannabis laws influenced the rate of opioid prescriptions among adults from different age groups in 2016.
To do so, researchers examined the relationships between age, changes in state cannabis laws and the pattern and rate of opioid prescriptions. Examining how those three variables interact with each other using data from one of the US’s largest commercial health insurance databases, researchers made some important findings.
Overall, the study found “a significant interaction between age and cannabis law on opioid prescriptions.” But those interactions changed depending on the age group and the type of cannabis law, whether simple decriminalization, medical legalization or full adult-use legalization.
Researchers looked at 5 different age groups from 18 to 64. For the oldest age group, from 56 to 64 years of age, researchers found no significant interactions between marijuana laws and opioid prescription rates. But for all the other age groups, in other words, all the patients aged 18-55, researchers say the interactions were significant. According to their results, those age groups had lower opioid prescription rates. But researchers only observed the reduction in states with medical cannabis laws only.
New Answers Prompt New Questions About Cannabis and Opioids
So researchers found that patients, between 18 and 55 years of age and with private insurance coverage, were prescribed fewer and shorter opioid prescriptions in states with legalized medical marijuana. But other categories of cannabis law, like decriminalization and adult-use, did not correlate with any significant reduction in opioid prescriptions, according to the study. It was just in medical marijuana-only states that researchers observed the decrease in opioid prescriptions.
Still, the study’s findings support other studies that have looked at the relationships between cannabis legalization and opioid use. A 2015 study, for example, found that states with legal access to dispensaries experienced a decrease in opioid-related overdose deaths. Another study using 2017 data is challenging those findings, however, saying that in recent years the trend has reversed.
In 2018, another study found an association between medical marijuana legalization and lower rates of opioid prescription among Medicaid recipients. Later that same year, researchers found a similar relationship between Medicare recipients aged 65 and above. But this study is the first to look exclusively at patients with private insurance.