New research by the American Journal of Public Health indicates that deaths associated with opioids have dropped in Colorado by 6%, just two years after recreational use of marijuana was legalized. This reduction in opioid-caused fatalities was the first of its kind in 14 years. Authors of the report did explain that their results thus far are still preliminary, as it is difficult to rely on data that merely spans a period of only two years. They feel that more research must be conducted to truly assert that a correlation or trend exists. Marijuana has been discussed as a potential alternative therapy for those suffering from pain instead of opioids, or potentially an option for those recovering from addiction.
The scope of related data should significantly increase over the next few years, as more states have since implemented marijuana for medical and recreational usage. A study at the University of Michigan showed results confirming that opioid usage dropped 64% among those suffering from chronic pain that used cannabis. Some public health officials feel that if it is effective, i.e., marijuana helps reduce fatal opioid overdoses.
The American Medical Association's Journal found that opioid-related deaths were 25% lower in states that allow medical marijuana; however, Colorado's Substance Abuse Task Force found that emergency room visits from heroin users rose over 40% between 2011 and 2014. Since 2001, Colorado has seen massive increases in heroin overdoses and heroin seized by law enforcement, while also crediting the state for directing some of their new found revenue to the treatment of opioid addiction. Researchers are beginning to access data from Nevada as well, which legalized marijuana for recreational purposes in 2017.
Data from the federal-based Center for Disease Control & Prevention confirmed that opioid-related deaths did appear to decline in states with recreational legalization. They described this as a “potential” trend, warning that much more research will need to be conducted. Despite the federal government's opposition to marijuana legalization, several other states are pursuing such legislation, which is creating strong demand for solid scientific and medical evidence regarding the effects of marijuana on health.
Factors That Could Produce Misleading Connections between Marijuana Use & Reduced Opioid Deaths
One factor (variable) that will certainly be needed in future studies involves the use of naloxone, particularly among law enforcement and emergency responders in cases of opioid overdose. In 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved variations of naloxone for emergency treatment, which could potentially contribute to a decline in opioid-related deaths.
Another potential factor that is contributing to the reduction of deaths attributed to opioids is roadway fatalities. Many law enforcement jurisdictions may not yet be testing for opioid usage among victims of traffic fatalities. A large segment of law enforcement initially tests motorists for alcohol consumption, which if confirmed, is the extent of the substance-related testing. Many of these individuals may have been drinking, but also may have been significantly impaired from opioids.
In addition, many experts feel that the reduction in opioid deaths in Colorado could be in response to its implementation of a strict drug monitoring initiative for prescriptions.
Policymakers Keeping Their Eyes on the Trend
Policymakers are keeping a close eye on these trends so far. In the northwestern part of the country, researchers are looking forward to additional data from both Washington and Oregon, both of which have variations of marijuana legalization.
There is still considerable debate between the federal and state levels regarding overall marijuana usage. Jeff Sessions, the U.S. Attorney General, has asked that more information be revealed about the detrimental health effects of marijuana. Michael Bennett, a U.S. Senator from Colorado, and a group of senators has asked the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Agency to better prioritize their efforts to focus on drugs that are capable of deadly overdoses, such as opioids, instead of marijuana. Their communication focused on allocating the limited resources to prevention and treatment of truly deadly drugs that are causing tremendous problems nationwide. In Colorado, both Governor John Hickenlooper, a member of the Democrat Party, and the Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a member of the Republican Party, have concurred that the federal enforcement programs should not be used contrary to individual state laws that have legalized marijuana.