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Global Health

Fewer opioid prescriptions filled in states allowing medical marijuana use

by Tien Nguyen
April 13, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 16

Photo of a doctor's prescription pad with marijuana spilling out of a jar.
Credit: Shutterstock

To curb the U.S. opioid crisis, policy-makers have targeted one of its major causes—rampant opioid prescribing—by restricting opioid access. Yet this move has unintentionally pushed some to seek more dangerous alternatives. Now, researchers say a solution may be to increase access to a safer alternative for treating pain: marijuana. People get fewer opioid prescriptions in states that have legalized cannabis use, according to two investigations looking at Medicaid (low-income populations) and Medicare Part D (populations 65 years or older) enrollees (JAMA Int. Med. 2018, DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.1007 and DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.0266). The Medicaid study showed a 6% lower opioid prescribing rate in states that allow medical cannabis use compared with states without such laws. The Medicare report observed a 7% reduction in daily opioid doses dispensed when states permitted home cultivation and a 14% drop once marijuana dispensaries opened. However, marijuana is an illicit drug akin to heroin and LSD under federal law, which Medicare study coauthor David Bradford of the University of Kentucky says is outdated. The potential for marijuana legalization to reduce opioid use warrants further study and discussion by policy-makers, the researchers say.


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