A link between legalized marijuana and reduced opioid deaths


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By Sally Crocker

From left to right: Melvin D. Livingston, PhD and Tracey E. Barnett, PhD

Opioid-related deaths decreased following the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, according to a study led by a public health researcher from UNT Health Science Center.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed a 6 percent reduction in opioid-related deaths in the two years after Colorado’s marijuana legalization, reversing the previous upward trend.

“As policy makers continue to grapple with both the growing opioid crisis and the rapidly changing landscape of marijuana laws in the U.S., scientific evidence is needed to help inform policy decisions to combat this disturbing upward trend in opioid-related deaths,” said Melvin D. Livingston, PhD, Assistant Professor at UNTHSC and lead author of the study.

Illegal and legally prescribed opioids now account for nearly 30,000 deaths a year in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. CDC data shows that opioid deaths from prescription drugs, heroin and synthetics like fentanyl have more than quadrupled since 1999.

In a July report to the White House, the U.S. Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis emphasized the severity of the problem, calling America “a nation in crisis.”

The researchers analyzed Colorado data covering a 15-year period from 2000 to 2015 to compare changes in the number of opioid-related deaths before and after recreational marijuana sale and use was legalized.

“As of 2016, eight states and Washington DC have legalized recreational marijuana. While we found an apparent public health benefit in short-term reduction of opioid-related deaths following Colorado’s legalization, it’s important to note that expanded, legalized marijuana can also be associated with significant potential harms,” Dr. Livingston said.

“For policymakers to weigh decisions balancing potential beneficial and detrimental effects of these laws, researchers must continue to examine the full range of health outcomes through further study,” he said.

Co-authors of the study were Tracey E. Barnett, PhD, Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at UNTHSC’s School of Public Health; Chris Delcher, PhD, from the University of Florida; and Alex C. Wagenaar, PhD, from Emory University.

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