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New Study Says Legalized States Have Increased Opioid Deaths

Philip Ghezelbash
Portugal, opioid overdose, opioid deaths, cannabis, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, overdose, epidemic, USA, legalization

We might not be able to consider cannabis an opioid crisis solution. Alarming data shows legalized states are seeing an increase in opioid deaths.

A recent study shows a connection between cannabis legalization and opioid overdose fatalities. It claims that legalization actually increases the number of opioid deaths over time! This flies in the face of everything we’ve been told in recent years since the release of a 2014 study showing that legal states had less deaths from opioid overdose. It demonstrated that opioid painkiller deaths plateaued in states with legal medical cannabis, while other states increased. Cannabis appeared to be in the top tier for opioid crisis solutions. Have we been wrong?

The Correlation Between Cannabis and Opioid Overdose

Based on the results of the 2014 study, as well as research on opioid withdrawal and CBD, it would appear cannabis is an excellent way to fight the opioid crisis. However, the newest study, entitled “Association between medical cannabis laws and opioid overdose mortality has reversed over time,” says otherwise. Researchers relied on similar methodology and data collection as the 2014 study, and showed that medical cannabis is now associated with more opioid deaths. According to this new analysis, cannabis was only correlated with fewer deaths from 1999 to 2010.

Data taken from up to 2016 shows that medically legal states have had more opioid overdose-related deaths. Opioid overdose deaths began to increase in 2012 and sharply – and consistently – continued to rise until 2017.

Portugal, opioid overdose, opioid deaths, cannabis, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, overdose, epidemic, USA, legalization

It’s important to remember that this is only a correlation, and while interesting, provides no evidence that cannabis consumption causes an increase in overdose deaths. As is true of the 2014 study.

The researchers of this analysis stated that there are no known mechanisms behind a causative link between medical cannabis and opioid overdose deaths. The previously found link is most likely a coincidence. 

Cannabis May Help With Opioid Withdrawals

We shouldn’t put our hopes on cannabis as the solution to the opioid epidemic. But this doesn’t mean the quick-moving reform of cannabis legislation should be put on hold because of this new data.

This new research also doesn’t mean that cannabis can’t be a viable treatment option for opioid abuse.  CBD has been shown to help manage the symptoms of heroin withdrawal. One study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined 42 participants and exposed them to cues that would induce their heroin cravings. Researchers found that those who took CBD had fewer cravings for heroin than the placebo group. These participants also showcased decreased markers of physiological stress.

There were limitations to this study, such as a small sample size of participants. But the study used placebo-controls and concluded that CBD is beneficial for addicted opioid users.

Portugal, opioid overdose, opioid deaths, cannabis, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, overdose, epidemic, USA, legalization, CBD

Moreover, a 2009 study showed that CBD acts as an opioid-sparing agent because cannabinoids act synergistically with opioids. This means that a patient can get better pain relief with a lower dose of opioids by combining treatment with CBD.

People primarily consume medical cannabis for pain relief. Many people who take opioids use them for pain too – at least initially. Cannabis could, therefore, be a viable alternative to opioids for chronic pain, without the addictive properties and overdose risk.

Decriminalization Decreases Opioid Deaths

The decriminalization of heroin and other illicit opioids may also be a viable approach to the opioid epidemic in the United States. For instance, Portugal, which suffered from a heroin crisis in the 1990s, proved the benefits of decriminalization. Police implemented these policies as a last resort, when Portugal’s citizens began dying in droves. 

Portugal didn’t legalize all drugs, as some people believe, but there was a fundamental change in policy. Drug offenses changed from being a criminal one to an administrative. People are now “allowed” to have less than a ten-day supply of a narcotic.

In the years following this policy change, to many people’s surprise, heroin use decreased. Opioid crisis solutions (lower deaths) followed suit. To many, decriminalizing drugs may seem counterintuitive. But, authorities went from treating drug-use as a criminal problem to a medical problem. With more treatment centers, less stigma over drug use, and clean needles from local facilities, this problem became easier to manage. As such, the spread of associated diseases such as hepatitis and HIV also dropped.

The numbers speak for themselves. The success of Portugal has since provoked many to people raise questions about contemporary drug laws elsewhere, including the opioid-riddled US.

Portugal, opioid overdose, opioid deaths, cannabis, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, overdose, epidemic, USA, legalization

Portugal reduced their opioid problem with decriminalization and better treatment facilities.

What Will Help The Opioid Epidemic?

US Federal data suggests only one in ten people with substance use disorders get treatment, and only one in five with opioid use disorder.

There are no simple opioid crisis solutions, but making the following changes would be a good start:

  • Changing policy to transform opioid use from being a criminal act to a health concern
  • Increasing access to proven treatments, such as methadone and buprenorphine
  • Improving the distribution of opioid overdose antidotes, such as naloxone

Increasing the availability of proven treatments through legitimate treatment facilities is better for everyone. The money that America is using to imprison people with opioid dependence issues today could instead fund proper treatment.

Patients need to have different options for pain treatment. They need to include alternative treatments, and cannabis. One way to reduce harm in patients that need opioids, is to combine with cannabis. Research found that by adding cannabis, people were able to dramatically reduce the daily consumption of opioids.

Cannabis associates positively and negatively with opioid overdose deaths, depending on who you ask. There doesn’t seem to be a strong link between the two after all. We need more research, especially clinical trials, to understand why it seems that cannabis went from reducing the epidemic to increasing its death rate. And that can only happen with legalization and funding from the federal government. So what are they waiting for? This is how we get opioid crisis solutions.

Philip Ghezelbash

Philip Ghezelbash is an ex-personal trainer with a science background who currently operates New Zealand's only health specialized writing studio. He is passionate about presenting complex science in an easy to digest manner and is a firm believer that cannabis has substantial potential to be used as a medicine for degenerative disease.

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