The opioid epidemic continues to be an ongoing, pervasive problem across the country. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people die every day in the United States due to opioid-related overdoses. In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died because of opioid overdose. In addition, around 1.7 million people in the United States were struggling with painkiller addiction in 2017, and 652,000 had a heroin use disorder.

With the devastating effects of the crisis, medical professionals, policymakers and communities are working to stop the death and destruction caused by prescription opioids. Unfortunately, many solutions are often too simple or ineffective to work well. Drug use disorders and the opioid crisis are complex, and there isn’t a cure-all.

Some people hoped the legalization of marijuana would slow the effects of the crisis. New research is shedding light on this, highlighting the fact that finding a solution to drug overdose deaths isn’t as simple as legalizing the use of marijuana.

Medical Marijuana & The Opioid Crisis

The causes of the opioid crisis and the startling statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can’t be traced to one single factor. The rising number of chronic pain conditions, widespread prescribing of opioids and socioeconomic factors all play a role.

Proponents of medical marijuana believe that it may help combat pain and could help with the crisis. However, a new study from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health refuted that theory in July 2019. Researchers studied data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2004 to 2014. They looked at possible links between individual prescription opioid use, addiction and states with legalized medical marijuana. The survey included around 70,000 people.

Previous studies found that prescription opioid overdoses and abuse fell once medical marijuana was legalized in a state. However, not all studies found this same result.

The most recent study seems to veer from these findings. Researchers tested the hypothesis that medical providers would prescribe marijuana instead of opioids, which would reduce the effects of the epidemic. However, they found no evidence that medical marijuana legalization was linked to a reduction in abuse.

In fact, another study found a nearly 23% increase in opioid overdose death rates in states with legalized medical marijuana.

Rise in Marijuana Legalization & Opioid Overdoses

To gain more insight into the potential relationship between marijuana legalization the overdose crisis, it’s useful to look at a few states as examples. Colorado has legalized medical and recreational marijuana. Based on previous theories, the opioid overdose rate in Colorado should have gone down since these laws were enacted. Colorado has seen modest declines in their opioid overdose death rate, but there were around 1,000 overdoses reported in the state in 2018. The small declines are attributed to the more widespread availability of the overdose reversal drug Narcan rather than the availability of marijuana.

Looking at the opioid overdose crisis by state, states with the highest overdose rates include Maine, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Mexico, Missouri, Massachusetts and Maryland. Medical marijuana is legal at some level in nearly all of these states.

More Treatment Tools Needed to Curb the Opioid Crisis

This research doesn’t mean medical marijuana isn’t a promising treatment to help people with issues such as chronic pain. However, it does mean is that the crisis in America is very complex and requires multiple approaches to treatment. There isn’t a magic bullet that can be used as a universal crisis response.

Some of the ways to deal with the crisis in America can include:

  • Increased access to treatment, including behavioral treatment and medications like buprenorphine and methadone
  • Harm reduction measures, including distribution of naloxone (Narcan)
  • Policies that deal with the root causes of addiction, including socioeconomic issues and mental health issues
  • Reducing the stigma surrounding addiction

Though evidence suggests these are the best ways to deal with addiction and provide effective treatment, they still aren’t readily available for many people. Only around one in 10 people with a substance use disorder receive treatment. Though it’s important to look at alternative options that could help with the opioid epidemic, such as medical marijuana, it’s more important to put effective treatment options in place and make them accessible to everyone.