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Researchers Say Legal Pot Decreased Opioid Deaths in Colorado, But Health Experts Aren’t Convinced

A new study suggests legal cannabis led to a 6% drop in opioid fatalities, but some Colorado health professionals say it’s too soon to make causal claims.

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Lead photo via Flickr user Frankie Leon

America’s opioid crisis is spiking fatal overdose rates from sea to shining sea, lining the pockets of pharmaceutical executives and inspiring only minimal responses from President Trump. To combat the deadly drug epidemic, public health experts from the local level to the federal government have turned to medical marijuana, a painkiller in its own right that has so far been associated with a decline in prescription pill and heroin use.

Outside of medical marijuana, a new piece of research published in the American Journal of Public Health is claiming that recreational legalization has had a similar dampening effect on Colorado’s opioid overdose deaths. While that sounds like reason for celebration, Centennial State health experts are urging researchers to slow their roll before making any causal conclusions.

According to the Washington Post, the study’s authors make the case that legal cannabis was a significant factor in Colorado’s 6 percent decrease in opioid-related deaths from 2014 to 2016.

To isolate the effect of Colorado’s recreational cannabis industry from the medical marijuana market and other outside factors, researchers compared the state’s overdose numbers with the same stats from Nevada, where recreational sales were outlawed until July 2017, and tried to account for a change in Colorado’s prescription drug monitoring program, a move that made it harder for residents to abuse doctor-approved painkillers.

After taking those variables into consideration, the research team still concluded that legal weed has lead to one less opioid-related death per month in the two years since Colorado's legal cannabis sales began in January ‘14.

“Analyses showed a statistically significant reduction in trend in opioid-related deaths following recreational cannabis legalization in Colorado,” the study’s authors wrote.

With only two years of research to draw from however, a number of Colorado health professionals have already expressed skepticism in the researchers’ conclusion, citing factors like access to the overdose prevention drug naloxone that might have affected the overdose numbers separately from marijuana.

“The whole thing is so convoluted, with so many different things going on in the marketplace, it’s virtually impossible to assign cause and effect or credit and blame to any one thing,” said Robert Valuck, who coordinates the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, to the Denver Post.

And while the study’s authors do stress at the beginning of their research that all of their data is preliminary research, Valuck is worried that ascribing causation to any one factor could mislead the public about both opioids and legal cannabis.

“Everybody wants the answer now because we want to know if this is a good idea or not,” Valuck said. “But the truth is we don’t have the answer, and it’s going to be a while until the jury comes back in.”

If there’s one thing that all of the involved parties can agree on, it is the need for increased research into all facets of the cannabis plant, including its use as a treatment and/or replacement for opiate painkiller abuse.

In the end, only time will tell if this particular study’s results carry on into Colorado’s future and to other states with comprehensive cannabis access.

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