Could cannabis help solve the opioid crisis in America?

Some experts have been preaching the possibility for years but now two scientific studies are backing up those claims.

Two separate peer-reviewed studies in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found a significant decrease in opioid prescribing in states that had relaxed their cannabis laws.

A new generation of opioids were marketed in the 1980s and 90s with inaccurate claims that they could alleviate chronic pain with minimal risk of addiction. In 2016 over 17,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoes in the US.

The Independent reports: The new research was accompanied by an opinion piece in JAMA Internal Medicine which said both studies produced “results suggesting that cannabis legalisation may play a beneficial role in the opioid crisis”.

In the first study, researchers at the University of Georgia, Athens, looked at Medicare Part D prescriptions for people over the age of 65 between 2010 and 2015.

It found that prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law.

When a state opened marijuana dispensaries, opioid prescriptions dropped by 3.7 million daily doses per year.

Summarising their results in the article Association Between US State Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Prescribing in the Medicare Part D Population, the researchers said that part of the reason for embarking on their study was that “Medical cannabis policies may be one mechanism that can encourage lower prescription opioid use and serve as a harm abatement tool in the opioid crisis.”

The researchers concluded: “Medical cannabis laws are associated with significant reductions in opioid prescribing in the Medicare Part D population. This finding was particularly strong in states that permit dispensaries, and for reductions in hydrocodone and morphine prescriptions.”

The second study, detailed in the article Association of Medical and Adult-Use Marijuana Laws With Opioid Prescribing for Medicaid Enrollees, looked at Medicaid prescription data from 2011 to 2016.

It found that allowing medical marijuana use was associated with 5.88 per cent drops in opioid prescribing rates.

Allowing adult recreational use of cannabis was associated with greater reductions.  Annual opioid prescribing rates fell by 6.38 per cent.

The University of Kentucky researchers concluded: “The potential of marijuana liberalisation to reduce the use and consequences of prescription opioids among Medicaid enrollees deserves consideration during the policy discussions about marijuana reform and the opioid epidemic.”

The opinion article, The Role of Cannabis Legalization in the Opioid Crisis, said that both studies “support anecdotal evidence from patients who describe a decreased need for opioids to treat chronic pain after initiation of medical cannabis.”