Study shows in states where medical marijuana is legal, opioid-related hospitalizations have dropped

Does cannabis have the potential to be an 'exit' drug for Canadians addicted to opioids?

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      For years, propagators of the War on Drugs have informed us that cannabis is a "gateway drug", but new research conducted in the United States suggests that it could be quite the opposite.

      According to a recent study published earlier this month in the journal, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, in states where medical cannabis is legal, fewer people were hospitalized for opioid use than in states where it was not.

      Authored by Dr. Yuyan Shi, an assistant professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California San Diego, the study examines the associations between state medical marijuana policies, and how they might be related to hospitalizations with respect to both marijuana and opioids.

      To conduct the study, state-level annual administrative records from 1997 to 2014 were retrieved from databases that archive 97 percent of all hospital discharges. Information from 27 states was collected, as not all states utilized the database during the examination period. 

      Over that 17-year period, drug-related hospitalizations rose by 300 percent.

      By comparing the average amount of opioid-related hospitalizations in states where medical cannabis was legal to the number of hospitalizations in states where it is not, researchers found that, in the former, hospitalizations caused by opioid dependence or abuse dropped by 23 percent. Hospitalizations caused by opioid overdoses dropped by 11 percent. 

      Researchers also examined data from states where medical dispensaries were in operation. In these states, hospitalizations for abuse dropped by 13 percent. For overdoses, hospitalizations dropped by 11 percent.

      It's also worth noting that in the states were laws were implemented, the legalization of medical marijuana did not increase marijuana-related hospital visits.

      Dr. Shi concluded that the findings of his study align with a number of other bodies of research: one earlier study found that the introduction of medical marijuana laws reduced the use of prescription drugs.

      Another found that marijuana laws were related to lower opioid overdose mortality rates. ­Yet another concluded that medical marijuana laws contributed to fewer individuals using opioids. A fourth study found that broader access to medical marijuana could have the potential to reduce the number of individuals using addictive painkillers. 

      With the state of Canada's current opioid crisis, one wonders how impactful broader access on this side of the border could be for those who are suffering from addiction.