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Legalizing Cannabis Could Reduce the Need for Opioids

Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer

Opponents of legalization often cite the fear that recreational marijuana could be a gateway to more serious drug use and addiction. Yet a recent report in the Journal of Drug Alcohol Dependence showed that when it comes to prescription opioids, marijuana may make a suitable substitute.  

The study looked at Medicaid State Drug Utilization Data from the nine states that started allowing recreational marijuana between 2010 and 2017, examining associations with opioid prescriptions received by Medicaid enrollees. Three population-adjusted variables were considered: the total milligram doses of opioid prescriptions, the number of opioid prescriptions received, and total related spending per 100 enrollees per quarter. 

No evidence was found to suggest increased opioid prescriptions among marijuana users, while there was a measurable reduction in Schedule III opioid prescriptions following legalization in some states, up to 32 percent.

While the study acknowledged it was possible that non-medical marijuana could be a risk factor for prescription opioid misuse in general, there’s more evidence to suggest that—at least among Medicaid patients—access to medical marijuana for those who would otherwise use prescription opioids causes a reduction of the need for opioids. 

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