Can medical marijuana help combat the opioid epidemic? Maybe not, new study finds.

Can medical marijuana help combat the opioid epidemic? Maybe not, new study finds.

Previous studies found medical marijuana legalization correlated with fewer opioid overdose deaths. New research finds otherwise.
By German Lopez
VOX June 11, 2019
One of the prominent arguments in favor of medical marijuana has been that it may help combat the opioid epidemic by giving doctors an alternative to opioids for treating pain. Some research supported the claim, indicating that states with legal medicinal marijuana had seen fewer opioid overdose deaths than states without legal medical cannabis.

But a new study has called this argument and the research supporting it into question.

Previous studies, particularly a widely cited 2014 study, found a correlation at the state level between the legalization of medical cannabis and fewer overdose deaths. That line of research indicated that medical marijuana may lead to a reduction in overdoses, under the theory that people could use cannabis to treat pain rather than opioids. Some state lawmakers embraced the studies, citing them to legalize medical pot or allow medical marijuana to help treat opioid addiction.
But a new study, which uses the same methodology and data as the 2014 study that kicked off this line of research, found the trend has reversed: Medical marijuana is now correlated with more opioid overdose deaths. The new study, published in PNAS, found that medical marijuana was correlated with fewer opioid overdose deaths from 1999 to 2010. But using newer data up to 2017, the study found that states with medical marijuana laws actually saw more opioid overdose deaths.

The researchers argue that the correlation is spurious — suggesting that there’s no broad, generalizable connection between medical marijuana and opioid overdose deaths, and the previously found link was likely a coincidence.

“We, the authors, think it’s a mistake to look at that and say, ‘Oh, cannabis was saving people 10 years ago and it’s killing people now,” Chelsea Leigh Shover, the lead author of the study, told me. “We think a more likely interpretation is that passing medical cannabis laws just is not affecting opioid deaths at the population level.”

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