Two new studies show cannabis is fighting America’s opioid epidemic

Dr. Floyd Huen meets with Apothecarium patient Dieter Schien, who uses cannabis in liu of opioids. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle
Dr. Floyd Huen meets with Apothecarium patient Dieter Schien, who uses cannabis in pain medications. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Legal access to marijuana is helping people use less prescription opioids, according to two studies published Monday by the American Medical Association.

In the first study conducted by authors Ashley C. Bradford, W. David Bradford and Amanda Abraham of the University of Georgia, researchers examined data from Medicare, which primarily covers patients over the age of 65.

They found a 14 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions in states with legal marijuana programs. Opiate prescriptions also dropped by 6.9 percent in states that allow adults to grow their own plants.

The researchers estimated that the dispensary programs reduced painkiller prescriptions by 3.7 million daily doses, while homegrown cannabis led to around 1.8 million less opioid doses per day. In comparison, Medicare patients took an average of 23 million daily opioid doses from 2010 to 2015.

“These findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids,” the authors wrote.

medical marijuana card
Dr. Frank Lucido meets with his patient, Carla Newbre of Oakland, in his office in Berkeley. Dr. Lucido recommended medical cannabis for Newbre’s muscle spasms and pain. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

By contrast, Dr. Bertha Madras — former deputy director for the White House’s Drug Czar office — warned of a lack of enough research on cannabis, and said enthusiasm for medical cannabis could be dangerous. “In many ways the recent history of the marijuana movement is recapitulating the history of the opiophilia movement that has led to our current national crisis,” Madra stated in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in March.

Critics note that the federal government blocks precisely such research.

The other study conducted by lead author Hefei Wen of the University of Kentucky and Jason M. Hockenberry of Emory University reached similar conclusions while observing data from Medicaid, a health insurance program typically reserved for patients with low income.

Their research found a reduction in opiate prescription rates of over five percent in states with medical marijuana laws, while a drop of 6.38 percent was found in states that allow recreational use.

“Marijuana is one of the potential alternative drugs that can provide relief from pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose,” Wen and Hockenberry wrote. “These findings suggest that medical and adult-use marijuana laws have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose.”

These new findings will add to several studies with similar conclusions, including a 2017 medical study that found a 25 percent drop in opioid-related deaths in states with legalized medical marijuana.

But experts warn that further studies must be conducted in order to assess any negative effects that may occur when using cannabis as an alternative to painkillers.

“Like any drug in our FDA-approved pharmacopeia, it can be misused. There’s no question about it,” said W. David Bradford, a professor of public policy at the University of Georgia. “So I hope nobody reading our study will say ‘Oh, great, the answer to the opiate problem is just put cannabis in everybody’s medicine chest and we are good to go.’ We are certainly not saying that.”

Madras also sounded skepticism saying: “At this point we need to promote high quality, rigorous research and move away from the misinformation flooding the media with reports of miracle cures and non-addictive properties and perfect treatments to manage chronic pain.”