New research: Legalization helps to reduce opioid deaths by at least 20%

New research: Legalization helps to reduce opioid deaths by at least 20%

Not one but two different new studies have some good news for a country suffering from an opioid crisis. Two related studies say that in places where adult-use cannabis laws have been passed, opioid overdose deaths drop by at least 20%.

That’s terrific — more than 130 people a day are dying from opioid overdoses — that number has increased by 6x since 1999, and what’s extra crazy is that 36% of the overdoses in 2017 came not from illicit drugs like heroin or fentanayl, but from prescription medication. Cannabis is still illegal in most places, and is still illegal at the federal level, and yet it’s killing 0 people per year, while doctors are literally still writing prescriptions for drugs that are killing people daily. How crazy are the drug laws in the US, right?

But there’s good news. Researchers compared opioid death rates in areas that had legalized marijuana (and made it available via dispensaries) against death rates in areas without legalization, and found that making cannabis legal for adult use reduced the death rates on all opiates by 20%, and reduced the death rates for synthetic opioids by 35%. And this isn’t self-reported survey data from a small sample — this is data based on models drawn across the whole population. The research shows that for the average-sized state (around 5 million), legalizing would save 50 lives a year, just from opioid deaths.

Of course, correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, and the researchers here are right to hold back when talking about exactly why this is the case — it could be that people are substituting cannabis for opioids (we’ve heard something similar before about alcohol), or there could be some other connection (making cannabis legal might reduce access to other drugs — an illegal dealer might offer multiple types of drugs, while a dispensary only offers cannabis). Or there could be no connection at all — it’s possible that these deaths are reducing for some other reason.

But even though we can’t necessarily know the mechanics of why this is happening for sure, the scientists behind this research are certain that the effect they’re seeing is legitimate — opioid deaths are dropping in states where cannabis is legal. It’s not like we needed yet another reason to push forward on legalization, but there’s yet another one.

And just as a postscript, let’s also not forget what brought us here in the first place. The opioid crisis didn’t just come about on its own — it was fueled by drug companies greedy for money, and willing to let patients die from overdoses just to sell more drugs. As legalization rolls out, the cannabis industry has an obligation to be better. There are larger and larger companies appearing around cannabis, and we (as consumers, producers, and distributors) need to balance the need for commerce with patient safety and health as well. Obviously, research says the risks involved with cannabis are much lower than with opioids, but just trading one set of greedy drug companies for another set won’t help anyone.

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