Coleman Drake, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Legalization Reduces Opiate Abuse ER Visits, Study Confirms

Want to reduce the harm of the opiate epidemic? Legalize cannabis.

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh confirms a belief long held by experts about cannabis for opiate addiction. It shows a link between state-level legalization and fewer opiate overdose emergency room visits.

The study’s lead author suggests that officials embrace federal cannabis legalization, for the sake of public health.

“This isn’t trivial,” said Coleman Drake, an assistant professor at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. “A decline in opioid-related emergency department visits, even if only for six months, is a welcome public health development.”

The change only continues for six months after legalization, but there is more cause for hope. Researchers didn’t find any increase in overdose visits after states legalized adult-use cannabis. If cannabis led to harder drug use, as prohibitionists claim, an increase in overdoses would be noticeable. This adds further research disproving the so-called “gateway theory.”

“[W]e suspect that people who use opioids for pain relief are substituting with cannabis, at least temporarily,” Drake said in a statement. “States can fight the opioid epidemic by expanding access to opioid use disorder treatment and by decreasing opioid use with recreational cannabis laws. These policies aren’t mutually exclusive; rather, they’re both a step in the right direction.”

Coleman and his colleagues published the study yesterday in the journal, Health Economics. An abstract clarifies that the plant isn’t an effective treatment for opioid addiction on its own. However, cannabis did prove effective as a replacement for opiates to treat pain.

“Cannabis liberalization may offer some help in curbing the opioid epidemic,” said Drake.

Most states would welcome the 7.6% decrease in emergency room overdose visits found by Drake and his colleagues, Jiebing Wen, Jesse Hinde and Hefei Wen. The change occurred during the first six months after legal, adult-use cannabis laws took effect in four states– California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada.

Using the period between June 2019 and May 2020, the data suggests over 6,000 of the 81,000 national overdose deaths could have been prevented with federal cannabis legalization. A bill to legalize cannabis at the federal level is expected to be introduced later today by Senate Democrats.

Drake boasts a PhD in Health Services Research, Policy and Administration from the University of Minnesota. The study used data on ER visits in the four legal cannabis states and 25 others between 2011 and 2017.


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