For weeks now, The News Station has been alerting its audience to a concern we have with cannabis opponents claiming that legalization has fueled the opioid epidemic. It’s rhetoric that we find to go beyond “reefer madness” and lead people towards life-threatening drugs.

Recent studies leave little doubt that marijuana legalization could help offset the opioid epidemic. Given the recent headlines, it is time for cannabis opponents to drop their dangerous rhetoric, and instead join the fight to end the global opioid epidemic.

Two studies published April 2 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine compared opioid prescription patterns in states with legal marijuana regulations to those without. One study looked at opioids covered under Medicare Part D between 2010 and 2015, while the other looked at opioids covered by Medicaid between 2011 and 2016.

Legal medical marijuana programs began to proliferate and expand in the United States around 2009. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have approved some form of legal marijuana.

In the Medicare study, researchers found that states with medical cannabis laws had 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids prescribed per year, compared with those states without medical marijuana laws. In the Medicaid study, opioid prescriptions dropped by nearly 6 percent in states with medical cannabis laws compared with states without such laws.

The team that looked at Medicaid patients also found that the four states that have recreational marijuana programs — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington — saw further reductions in opioid prescriptions. There was about a 10 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions in Colorado and Oregon, while Alaska and Washington were only slightly smaller. States that permit recreational use saw an additional nearly 6.5 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions under Medicaid compared with states that prohibit recreational marijuana.

Access was also a critical component of the studies. States that permit marijuana retail locations saw more than 3.7 million fewer opioid prescriptions filled per year under Medicare, while those that only allowed home cultivation had around 1.7 million fewer opioid prescriptions per year. That equates to a 14.5 percent reduction in any opiate use when dispensaries were involved, compared to about a 7 percent reduction in states with only home cultivation. That is statistically significant.

States with medical cannabis laws saw nearly 21 percent fewer morphine prescriptions and nearly 17.5 percent fewer hydrocodone prescriptions compared with states that did not have medical marijuana laws, according to the Medicare study. Fentanyl prescriptions under Medicare Part D also dropped by 8.5 percent in states that had enacted medical cannabis laws.

Cannabis opponents can no longer ignore the data. The two recent studies come on the heels of a study by Minnesota health officials who last month released a comprehensive report on medical marijuana and pain. More than 350 patients involved in the Minnesota study initially reported using opioid painkillers. Nearly 63 percent reported reduced or eliminated opioid usage after six months of using medical cannabis.  

 Meanwhile, a 2014 study showed that states with medical cannabis laws had nearly 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths between 1999 and 2010. A study in 2017 also found that the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado in 2012 reversed the state’s upward trend in opioid-related deaths.

The studies come at a critical time, when more than 90 Americans a day die from opioid overdoses. More than 42,000 people per year die from opioid abuse, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a shocking realization, opioid deaths recently surpassed vehicular accidents and shooting deaths as the most common cause of accidental death in the United States, according to CDC. The crisis was declared a public health emergency by President Trump and a recent forecast concluded that as many as 650,000 people will die over the next 10 years from opioid overdoses.

Despite the potential for medical marijuana to help end the opioid crisis, cannabis critics continue a relentless push against it. One of the latest examples comes in a Feb. 22 report by Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and the Marijuana Accountability Coalition (MAC), two cousin cannabis opposition groups.

Page 3 of the SAM and MAC report states, “In the time that the opioid epidemic has increased, the percentage of marijuana users who are using the drug frequently has skyrocketed. This is unsurprising, as peer-reviewed research has revealed early marijuana use more than doubles the likelihood of opioid use later in life.”

Stop. Please just stop. As David Bradford, professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia and a lead author of the Medicare study, said, “This study adds one more brick in the wall in the argument that cannabis clearly has medical applications.

“No one has ever died of cannabis, so it has many safety advantages over opiates,” Bradford continued. “And to the extent that we’re trying to manage the opiate crisis, cannabis is a potential tool.”