States with legal medical marijuana dispensaries (LMDs) saw 16 to 31 percent fewer deaths due to prescription opioid overdoses, along with a dramatic drop in admissions for treatment of opioid addictions, according to a study supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There were 20,101 overdose deaths involving prescription opioids in 2015, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. A theoretical application using the NIDA findings suggests that a national system of medical marijuana and LMDs would have meant from 3,216 to 6,231 fewer opioid overdose deaths last year. That hypothetical assumes that all 50 states approved medical marijuana and were running legal dispensary systems.
Today, 30 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana. States with LMDs provide safe, organized access to marijuana, NIDA reports, while patients in states without LMDs may have to resort to illegal means to obtain the drug.
Many states experienced a lag between legalizing medical marijuana and creating a legal dispensary system, notes Justin Strekal, political director for NORML, the advocacy group for marijuana legalization.
“Some legalized medical but did not set up a regulatory apparatus (for dispensing),” said Strekal. “Some states punted to their department of health or another agency to create it. And that can take years.”
FAILED TO MOVE
One example is Maryland. It legalized medical marijuana in 2014 but is still creating its LMD system. The state predicts it will begin such a system this year.
And Florida legislators failed in their recent session to move forward on expanding the state’s medical marijuana system to provide treatment for HIV/AIDS, Crohn’s disease, and other diseases. Just last November 71 percent of voters approved a referendum that allowed for increased medical marijuana treatment.
In another finding, the researchers found that states with LMDs had 28 to 35 percent fewer admissions for treatment of opioid addictions.
The study was conducted by Dr. David Powell and Dr. Rosalie Pacula, economists from the Rand Corp., and Dr. Mireille Jacobson of the University of California, Irvine.
The results were not all rosy for marijuana legalization advocates.
The researchers found that states with LMDs had higher rates of the recreational use of marijuana, along with an increased potency in illegal marijuana.
For the study the researchers “compared rates of marijuana and prescription opioid use and problems from 1999 and 2014.”
The researchers compared states that did and did not allow doctors to recommend marijuana; that did and did not have established LMDs; required physician and/or patients to register to prescribe and use marijuana; and allowed home cultivation of marijuana plants.
Photo by Dominic Simpson, 2010.