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Medical marijuana may reduce opioid use a little

Legalizing medical cannabis might offer an alternative to narcotics to treat pain
by Maggie Fox /  / Updated 

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Making medical marijuana available might help reduce opioid prescriptions, researchers reported Monday.

They found states that legalized the medical use of marijuana saw small reductions in opioid prescriptions for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

Image: Medical marijuana
States with medical marijuana laws had fewer opioid prescriptions than states without such laws, new research finds.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters file

Since opioid prescriptions are considered to be a major driver of the opioid abuse epidemic, the researchers said, medical marijuana laws could be a part of the solution.

“State implementation of medical marijuana laws was associated with a 5.88 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing,” wrote Hefei Wen of the University of Kentucky College of Public Health and Jason Hockenberry of the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

“Marijuana is one of the potential non-opioid alternatives that can relieve pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose,” they wrote in one of two reports published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers looked at the prescription records of people using Medicaid and also Medicare Part D – the prescription add-on plan for Medicare recipients.

In the Medicare study, Wen and colleagues found that states with medical marijuana laws had a more than 8 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions compared to states with no such laws.

“We found that overall opioid prescribing in Part D was lower when states permit access to medical cannabis,” they wrote.

“Prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law,” they added.

“Prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.742 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened.”

State and federal officials are looking for ways to reduce opioid deaths and to reduce the overuse of opioid prescriptions.

The National Center for Health Statistics says 63,600 people died of drug overdoses in 2016.

Opioids killed or helped kill 42,249 people in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Opioid overdose deaths were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999.

There had been worries that marijuana use might be a gateway that moves people towards use of other drugs, including opiates, the researchers said. But their study doesn't support that view.

The researchers cannot say if people switched from opioid prescriptions to using a medical marijuana product. They also note that the findings only apply to people using Medicare and Medicaid, which are government health insurance plans for people who are elderly, disabled, low-income or pregnant.

But addiction experts said the findings are an important piece of science in an area in which laws are often passed based on emotions and not on medical research.

“For many reasons, ranging from significant barriers to research on cannabis and cannabinoids to impatience, cannabis policy has raced ahead of cannabis science in the United States,” wrote Dr. Kevin Hill of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Dr. Andrew Saxon of the University of Washington, who were not involved in the research.

And there’s evidence cannabis can fight pain.

Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia have laws legalizing the medical use of cannabis.

They are usually restricted and don’t allow just anyone to freely use marijuana.

“In medical marijuana laws, states typically specify a list of conditions that are eligible for medical marijuana, and most states have included in the list generic terms such as ‘severe pain,’ ‘chronic pain’, or ‘intractable pain unrelieved by standard medical treatment and medications’,” they wrote.

“Patients with eligible conditions are expected to obtain recommendation from qualified physicians and enroll in a patient registry. Patients are then issued identification cards that allow them or their caregivers to possess a certain amount of marijuana through home cultivation and licensed dispensaries.”

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