Legalized medical cannabis can reduce opioid use, new studies find

A pair of new studies are suggesting that what medical cannabis advocates have been claiming all along has merit: that legalizing medical cannabis may just be the solution to the opioid crisis.

The studies compared patterns of opioid prescription in states that have already legalized medical cannabis with states that still have restrictive laws against the use of pot for medical purposes. The studies were published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal.

One study aimed to answer the question of whether there is a connection between state implementation of medical cannabis laws and opioid prescriptions patterns under Medicare Part D. This study looked at opioid prescriptions that were covered by Medicare Part D between the years 2010 and 2015.

The other study, meanwhile, looked at opioid prescriptions that were covered by Medicaid between the years 2011 and 2016.

Medicare Part D refers to the optional prescription drug benefit plan for people who are enrolled in Medicare. This health benefit plan covers more than 42 million people in the United States, including those who are 65 years old and older. Medicaid, meanwhile, provides health coverage to over 73 million low-income Americans.

Results showed that compared with states that have not legalized medical cannabis, the states that already have medical cannabis laws had 2.11 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed for every year under Medicare Part D from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year. Researchers of the Medicare study also found that prescriptions for all opioids had lessened by 3.742 million daily doses per year when legal medical cannabis dispensaries opened.

Opioid prescriptions under Medicaid have likewise dropped by 5.88% in states that have legalized medical cannabis compared with states that have not.

David Bradford, lead author of the Medicare study and professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia, said that their work adds to the argument that medical cannabis can be effective and has medical applications, particularly for pain patients.

According to Bradford, Medicare and Medicaid publish these data, and those who want to use these data are free to download them. “However, that means we do not know what is going on with the uninsured and the privately insured population, and for that, the data sets are expensive and proprietary.”

What is this opioid epidemic?

The opioid crisis or epidemic refers to the rapid rise in the use of both prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in the United States and in Canada, which started from the late 1990s. Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin, prescription painkillers like morphine, OcyContin and Vicodin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that more than 115 Americans die every day after overdosing on opioids. The misuse of opioids and the addiction to these drugs are a serious national crisis affecting not only public health but also social and economic welfare.

According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the total “economic burden” of the misuse of prescription opioid alone in the U.S. is $78.5 billion a year. This includes the costs of healthcare, addiction treatment, lost productivity, and criminal justice involvement.

What do these studies mean?

Cannabis advocates are hoping that the results of this pair of studies are exactly what the U.S. federal government is waiting for in order to take steps toward legalizing medical cannabis in the federal level. Instituting medical cannabis policies for all states in the country may just be the one mechanism that can encourage the decrease in opioid prescriptions, lower opioid use, and serve as a tool to end the opioid epidemic in the country.

Now that studies like these are coming out and are staring the federal government in the face, people can only wait and see what agencies and government bodies like the U.S. Department of Justice, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration decide to do. Will the federal government decide to use these scientific studies to arm itself in its fight against opioid crisis, or will it decide to ignore these studies and maintain its stubborn stance against cannabis?

Again, we wait.

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