Feds Admit Marijuana’s Potential To Reduce Opioid Problems

By Tom Angell | May 01, 2017

A growing body of recent scientific research indicates that legal marijuana access leads to reduced opioid issues, and now the federal government can’t help but admit it.

In a new update to a webpage on cannabis’s medical uses, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that “medical marijuana products may have a role in reducing the use of opioids needed to control pain.”

Reporting the results of studies that the agency funded, the revised NIDA page says that one “found an association between medical marijuana legalization and a reduction in overdose deaths from opioid pain relievers, an effect that strengthened in each year following the implementation of legislation.”

A second federally-funded study “showed that legally protected access to medical marijuana dispensaries is associated with lower levels of opioid prescribing, lower self-report of nonmedical prescription opioid use, lower treatment admissions for prescription opioid use disorders and reduction in prescription opioid overdose deaths.”

Further, the latter study demonstrated that “the reduction in deaths was present only in states with dispensaries (not just medical marijuana laws) and was greater in states with active dispensaries.”

In other words, the federal government knows that the easier it is for people to access legal marijuana, the less likely they will rely on potentially deadly opiate-based drugs.

Other recent research suggests that “medical cannabis treatment may reduce the dose of opioids required for pain relief,” the new update to the NIDA page says, including one study which examined the Medicare program and found that “availability of medical marijuana significantly reduced prescribing of medications used for conditions that medical marijuana can treat, including opioids for pain.”

NIDA is funding a number of additional ongoing scientific investigations on the topic, the webpage says.

The new passage on opioids isn’t seen on the most recently cached version of the NIDA page on the Wayback Machine archived on April 18, suggesting it was added within the past two weeks.

Also last month, a separate study found that spending on prescription drugs through Medicaid is significantly lower in states with medical cannabis laws than in states without medical marijuana.

“If all states had had a medical marijuana law…[annual] total savings for fee-for-service Medicaid could have been $1.01 billion,” the researchers wrote.

The new NIDA website update is the latest development to suggest that the agency may be warming to the idea that legalization isn’t an outright public health disaster and may actually have some benefits.

Last week, when a study found that illegal marijuana use and marijuana use disorders increased significantly more in states with medical cannabis laws than in other states, NIDA Director Nora Volkow and other agency officials went out of their way to admit in a companion editorial that “research to date has not documented an increase in cannabis use by adolescents in the United States overall or in those states that enacted new marijuana laws.”

And in March, NIDA edited another marijuana page on its site to read as slightly more open to the idea that cannabis has medical benefits.

Despite the mounting evidence about marijuana’s potential to reduce opioid issues and NIDA’s admission of the same, other federal officials like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions continue to dismiss the notion that cannabis could be a safer alternative to prescription drugs.

“‘Marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse.’ Give me a break,” he said in February. “This is the kind of argument that’s been made out there to just — almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that’s true. Maybe science will prove I’m wrong.”

Now, thanks to NIDA, the Trump administration has the science on marijuana and opioids compiled in one place.

Tom Angell

Tom Angell is a senior political correspondent for MassRoots. A 15-year veteran in the cannabis law reform movement, he covers the policy and politics of marijuana. Separately, he serves as chairman of the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and is editor of the daily Marijuana Moment newsletter.

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