Criminal justice professors examine the effect of cannabis laws on opioid use

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It’s no secret that the opioid epidemic has taken the lives of many. A new study conducted by criminal justice professor Jamie Flexon and her colleagues Lisa Stolzenberg and Stewart D’Alessio examines this epidemic through the lens of recent cannabis laws and their effect on opioid use.

An estimated 116 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Of this group, about five to eight million Americans that need long-term pain management depend on opioids. However, with leniency in the laws that regulate these drugs, it is now the most prescribed analgesic in the United States. Further complications arise with the drugs’ link to addiction, overdose, reduced work productivity, emergency room visits and even death.

As more evidence connecting the legal availability of medicinal cannabis with pain control arises, it suggests that medicinal cannabis can be a better treatment alternative.

“A lot of people are concerned with cannabis being a gateway drug or that more permissive attitudes about marijuana would potentially increase opioid misuse but we don’t find any effect,” says Flexon.

To support this statement the results of the study show that states with Medical Marijuana Laws (MML) have a lower opioid use than states that do not have these laws and there is no association between states with MML laws and the misuse of opioids. However, researchers say one should take into consideration that the results were taken from a survey, so there is a “limited variability in the opioid misuse variable” in which respondents may have had biased responses.

Contrary to popular belief, Flexon explains that using opioids for chronic pain treatment is generally ineffective. In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has revealed that alternative therapies including exercise and acetaminophen have shown more effectiveness in treating pain.

As evidence implies, “that opioids are ineffective as a means to control chronic, non-cancer related pain, as well as being linked to a myriad of issues associated with opioid use disorder many states are enacting Medical Marijuana Laws  for the treatment of various medical complaints, including chronic pain,” Flexon adds. The research findings point toward “evidence that MMLs may be effective at reducing opioid reliance as respondents living in states with medical cannabis legislation are much less apt to report using opioid analgesics than people living in states without such laws.”

Alarmingly, the study further explains, “recent projections indicate that opioid overdoses will worsen with an annual number of deaths reaching approximately 82,000 by 2025, yielding a total of more than 700,000 projected deaths between 2016 and 2025.”

Flexon explains in her research study that a factor leading to the issue of opioid misuse lies in the belief that “prescription drugs are safer to misuse than illicit drugs.”

One of the leading concerns is the potential side effects of THC—the primary psychoactive substance in cannabis—which includes mental cloudiness, substance use disorder, lung related illness and other possible side effects that have yet to be identified. However, right now there are no known risks of death with cannabis overdose and the overall risk profile is lower compared to opioids.

Flexon and colleagues used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health; therefore, they do note that the survey results are based on subjective judgments. As with all research, further research on the topic is needed to evaluate the possible effects of cannabis along with other alternative therapies mentioned in the study and those yet to be discovered.


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