Studies Link Legal Marijuana With Fewer Opioid Prescriptions

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By Malcolm Ritter 
AP Science Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Can legalizing marijuana fight the problem of opioid addiction and fatal overdoses? Two new studies in the debate suggest it may.

Pot can relieve chronic pain in adults, so advocates for liberalizing marijuana laws have proposed it as a lower-risk alternative to opioids. But some research suggests marijuana may encourage opioid use, and so might make the epidemic worse.

The new studies don’t directly assess the effect of legalizing marijuana on opioid addiction and overdose deaths. Instead, they find evidence that legalization may reduce the prescribing of opioids. Over-prescribing is considered a key factor in the opioid epidemic.

Both studies were released Monday by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

One looked at trends in opioid prescribing under Medicaid, which covers low-income adults, between 2011 and 2016. It compared the states where marijuana laws took effect versus states without such laws. The comparison was done each quarter, so a given state without a law at one point could join the other category once a law kicked in.

Results showed that laws that let people use marijuana to treat specific medical conditions were associated with about a 6 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing for pain. That’s about 39 fewer prescriptions per 1,000 people using Medicaid.

And when states with such a law went on to also allow recreational marijuana use by adults, there was an additional drop averaging about 6 percent. That suggest the medical marijuana laws didn’t reach some people who could benefit from using marijuana instead of opioids, said Hefei Wen of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, one of the study authors.

The other study looked at opioid prescribing nationwide for people using Medicare, which covers people 65 years or older and those with disabilities. Every year from 2010 through 2015, researchers compared states with a medical marijuana law in effect to those without one. Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia had such a law from the beginning of that time; nine other states joined them during the years the study covered.

Researchers found that Medicare patients in states with marijuana dispensaries filled prescriptions for about 14 percent fewer daily doses of opioids than those in other states. Patients in states that only allowed them to grow pot at home showed about 7 percent fewer doses.

W. David Bradford, an economist at the University of Georgia in Athens who’s an author of the second study, said the results add to other findings that suggest to experts that marijuana is a viable alternative to opioids. The weight of that evidence is “now hard to ignore,” said Bradford, who said he thinks federal regulations should be changed to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana for pain treatment.

The two studies have some limitations, Dr. Kevin Hill of Harvard Medical School and Dr. Andrew Saxon of the University of Washington in Seattle wrote in an accompanying editorial.

For one thing, they don’t reveal whether individual patients actually reduced or avoided using opioids because of the increased access to marijuana. The findings in Medicaid and Medicare patients may not apply to other people. And the results may have been skewed by some characteristics of the state populations studied, they wrote.

They called for states and the federal government to pay for more studies to clarify the effect of marijuana use on opioid use, saying such research is needed for science to guide policy-making.

Follow Malcolm Ritter on Twitter at @MalcolmRitter. His recent work can be found here.

The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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15 Comments

  1. Did you know, for some, THC has more health benefits than CBD’s. Not only can THC extend your life, but it can give you a happier, healthier lifestyle. CBD’s only, can’t. My lifestyle bares this out.
    Pot, makes my life work better! I mean, why take all the other meds just to live a defeated life and then die? All the meds I take keep my body functioning well at 71…
    Been groovin 51 years. Got some good stuff to share…
    Pot gives me the passion for life and motivation to be able to enjoy my good health. It’s what gets me up each day with excitement and great expectations because I know it’s going to be a great day with motivation! Ya gotta keep movin or nature will begin the “death spiral” sequence. …just sayin!

    The dilemma… I know, at 71, for some, movement of any kind can be painful. It’s no wonder why older folks can’t get motivated to do the very things that create better health and longevity… it hurts!
    It hurts while you walk, shop or play with the grandkids. Now, you have to recover. Then you have to try and sleep thru the night. Then you have to get up the next day and do it all again. Or, sit in a chair for a few days just to get mentally prepared to go thru the hours of pain and insomnia caused by pain. This is where pain pills might be considered. Now you are faced with possible addition, chronic constipation, immobility, boredom and depression which will be remedied with more pills.
    I use pot for the two things that take care of everything else… it gives me a sense of well being and the motivation that it brings.
    At this point, I don’t think about the pain enough to stop me from “living” while I’m alive. It makes me want to live a better lifestyle.

    I had prepared to die of ill health with no hope at 63.
    I now plan on living till I’m 100+ because it’s something to look forward to now. Remember the feeling as a child when you woke up and morning smiled…

    Just smoking grass isn’t like any other “stand alone” experience if you know what to do with it and use the right strain of pot to get the right results. After smoking pot for 50+ years I’ve learned just how diversified cannabis is. When you consider sativa, indica and hybrids you’re looking at several hundred different strains and new hybrids coming out everyday. You learn what strain can make you anxious, and which one is the opposite with it’s relaxing, sleepy, couch lock, hungry effects. If you don’t want to get the munchies and couch lock don’t use pure Indica. If you don’t want to be edgy or shaky like an energy drink or too much coffee, don’t use pure Sativa.

    If CBD’s are important to you, just remember, The sense of well being and motivation comes from THC. To me, THC is much more important for your frame of mind, “plus” aid’s in pain.
    My wife and I tried CBD cannabis with no noticeable effect or benefit… doesn’t mean it won’t work for others. There are strains that contain both.

    Hybrids find the sweet spot for each individuals desired effect. Don’t get me wrong, pure Indica and pure Sativa are very desirable… I just don’t recommend either for new users. If you don’t know what to expect and are determined to try pot, go with a recommended Hybrid first… one toke at a time, keeps you from, one toke over the line!

    Important note: To accurately evaluate an individuals first experience with cannabis, you must not drink alcohol during this time. Alcohol will all but guarantee a bad experience. No other meds either, i.e.; aspirin, cold med, allergy med. No coffee, no energy drink. Don’t try if depressed, emotional or alone. These are the same precautions I would give to a first time driver of a car.

    Find out what hybrid is tailor-made for you and your relationship. You may even want to use several different strains for different effects as I do. Between the weather, news, your “to do list” and everyday stresses, you find that your moods or needs can change at different times of the day. I personally have several strains (10 to 12) at the ready at all times. Why? I don’t ever want another bad day!
    If I can prevent a bad day… why shouldn’t I, why wouldn’t I, why couldn’t I, why can’t I?

    Now, I have a “say” in what I’m going through at the time. If my Lady or I don’t want to be a “mood’s victim”, we can change the mood with one of the 12 strains that allow us to pick the direction we want to go in for the rest of the day or evening. Being dialed in with your spouse/partner at the end of the day is exactly where I want to be.

    No man made drug can do that. In my opinion, pot in a very positive way, can change your life, your marriage, your sex life, your health, your negativity and anger issues. It’s great for just being happy with a genuine sense of well being.
    For me, it’s just a healthier, happier and better way of life. Please don’t think I’m trying to encourage anyone to take any substance they don’t consider necessary. Remember, I’ve been using pot for over 50 years, for everything. So naturally, as a healthy 71 year old, it’s hard for me to see or understand how people, even today, freak out over the use of pot.

    Please note my opinion: Anyone thinking of using cannabis as a lifestyle should first educate themselves with a “personal feasibility study”. First, are you ADD? (A Non-ADD person may not understand any of this and certainly wouldn’t need to consider this as a life style but would use it more for recreation) Are you free to come and go as you please everyday? Are you retired or well off? Do you or your partner know anything about pot and the effects of hundreds of different strains and combinations of pot? How does pot effect you and your partner as individuals and jointly in a relationship. Depending on your age, what do you want from pot? Pot is the only substance on earth that can “partner” with you and enhance whatever direction or experience you choose to go with. At least for me.

    I went to a 30 day, in-house alcohol treatment facility which nationally they had a cure rate of only 17% (National Average). After, I was sober for one year. I celebrated this milestone of achievement with two bottles of Champaign. I started drinking again the next day and everyday after. That’s when I consciously chose pot to quit drinking because my drinking was out of control again. I even drove in black-out. It scared me to death. Since I stopped drinking and started using pot. I have not driven drunk in over ten years, where it used to be daily.

    I’ve gotten my diabetes to goal, high blood pressure is gone, heart palpitations are gone, cholesterol at goal, lost 50 pounds without going on a diet… thanks Sativa! I feel and look 20 years younger and getting younger everyday! Stress and anger are a thing of the past and the family loves it. I no longer have chronic insomnia.

    I was a very unhappy, walking dead man before changing my life style.
    My life is fun again. I start everyday using pot. I take it like a medical regimen. I have 2 to 3 tokes every 3.5 to 4 hours all through the day…everyday and have for years. I don’t get baked or very stoned. Like any meds, you can’t over/under dose and expect proper results. For me, pot is a med, to be taken correctly.

    Selecting the correct strain is also critical. For me, a hybrid pot strain of 70 % sativa, with 30% indica is the way I start my day. I call it “get off your ass grass”.
    NOTE:, I’ve had to change the name to… get off your duff, stuff”. ( My lovely wife has brought it to my attention that, I no longer have an ass! ) Thanks for the update, Sweetheart!
    It keeps me active and in good spirits… It makes you feel young again! I never use indica till night, makes me feel lazy and sleepy all day, even depressed. I don’t use pot for recreation because I’m already in recreation mode all day, everyday. Like I said it’s a lifestyle change.

    I could triple the dose of any of the many meds I take daily and wind up in the hospital or dead. I could triple or quadruple my intake of pot and it wouldn’t do much more than put me to sleep, make me eat, dance, laugh, brainstorm or just trip. The benefits in the proper use of pot should not get mixed in with what people are doing to get it illegally.

    I am the most positive minded, focused, happiest, nicest and full of great expectations for the day ahead. I’m that way all day everyday as long as I use grass. I use it for pain relief, Insomnia, brain storming new ideas and much more.
    Why should I wait till “week-end recreation” to enjoy all the attributes and benefits?

    Of course at 71 and retired with a med pot grower license, it’s easy for me to live this life style. My lady is a baby boomer as well.
    Like us, most older folks have a lot of issues similar to ours. I finally got my lady to get on the same pot regimen as me because she no longer works, plus it’s legal now. She is experiencing the same benefits as me. She’s lost 50 pounds as well. She has stopped using prescribed Oxycodone for pain! (chronic regional pain syndrome). Pot just prevented another person from the horrible effects of prescribed Oxy addiction and saved me from alcohol addition.

    We’re like peas and carrots again! Seriously, our relationship is like it was approx.. 28 years ago. We got our groove back! We still have great fun and lots of love in our great relationship.
    That, will take us the rest of the way.

    Like I said, weed is absolutely unique. It can deliver what you seek. Be it physical, emotional, sexual, self revelations, pain relief, mood altering, artistic, focus, temperament enhancer, just having fun, a happier lifestyle, well being, brain storming new ideas with focus and passion. What can you do with all these features and benefit’s? I can live a longer, healthier life with fewer or no major organ or cancer issues.

    Why do I think this? Simple deduction. I have friends that have gone through cancer treatment and beat it! They starved the cancer and it left their body. One of the key counseling issues through out the entire treatment was absolutely no stress, worry, anxiety, anger or thinking anything that would trigger any of these emotions… ever! Which is debatably the very thing that caused the cancer in the first place.

    Cancer feeds off all negative emotions that produce heavy stress loads on different organs of the body. We all know how heavy that weight can become after years of unresolved issues. In my opinion, pot is tailor made for cancer patients as well as a proactive, pre-cancer med for high stress, worry, anxiety, anger or thinking anything that would trigger any of these emotions.

    I personally chose not to wait till I get a major organ breakdown or cancer to go on a pot regimen. Being proactive in the elimination of negative thoughts and lifestyle, make it possible to enjoy a healthier one. If you are older… positive, emotional, physical and recreational motivation is the key to enjoying a longer, healthier life! If you can’t enjoy your life when your healthy, what’s the point to a longer life?

    It seems like the logical proactive thing to do. I’ve asked four doctors this same question- if pot took away anxiety, anger or thinking anything that would trigger any negative emotions, could you live longer and healthier? They all said absolutely yes!

    They also added… stress can cause any major health problems in anyone no matter how healthy they are. Unchecked stress will not only kill you but it will also destroy your life years before you die. Personally speaking, I don’t want to be miserable and unhappy with no motivation.
    The right strain with proper amounts of THC is what can prevent negativity, depression, stress, boredom, anger, and isolation by changing your mindset, temperament and attitude’s.
    Cannabis CBD only… cannot! It does other great things.

    • Charles Sanders on

      Dear sir…we walk the same walk, I’ve never imagined that I have a twin brother. 🙂 I will have 73 years of life in Aug. I inline skate, I ski and I cycle. What you said about a good attitude and having a smile to me means a lot. I am a proud Vietnam Veteran and like you I been token since 1966 and I feel good! I’m also a cancer survivor twice over from Agent Orange. I go to the VA hospital and I talk Cannabis up with Veterans. I identified with most everything you…no, I identify with everything you said and I appreciate the positive reinforcement.

  2. Made my day reading your comment greg James! Thank you for advocating with such Great writing skills! It was long, but i couldn’t stop reading and very glad that i did.
    As marijuana becomes more main stream, maybe we can start to see a happier population, as a whole!
    Thanks again for sharing

  3. Darin Richardson on

    I’m living PROOF that Marijuana works for opioid addiction…….That’s all I gotta say……….

    • Still on them. Hope to, one day soon, get off them. I’ve been on opiates since the mid 90’s due to an auto accident.

  4. Charlie Vasquez on

    Thanx Gregg James on the valuable info you took the time to share with us the public.
    I worked in a medical lab.. I find that what you pointed out is spot on ..I have been diagnosed with Rheumatoid arthritis got it under control with meds..prostate cancer …
    Removal then Radiation after almost 10 yrs..
    All through this my medical marijuana has given me calm to think over my options…

    • Greg, your article left me speechless! Anyone who knows me would not believe it! I am sincerely laying here in bed, resting my aching, debilitating body… I am so tired of the pain every day, all day long. Everything you said was like you were speaking for me. Except I am 51, and feel more like 80 yrs old. I just started trying different methods of medicating. It is so confusing and lots of people who work at dispensaries, etc are very young and I feel like them just want to get me baked… I smoked a little in the past, but I would still say I am very new to all these choices! You need to have your own business whereas I could speak with you and you could help me try the correct strains for different times of day, activities, etc. I really need your help! I hope you continue to write and share your truth with us…you truly are greatly respected! Stay lifted my friend!

  5. John the Cannabist on

    Cannabis is a cure all for just about everything controversial- it can replace plastic, trees for paper, ills for pain and opium for pain, and of course it’s nature’s way of saying hi and staying high. The ultimate is gyob.

  6. I relate! I’m 66 and have chronic pain for over half of it. Physically, you spoke truth. Equally though is the mental strain. It’s as constant as the pain and living with it is no easy task. Cannabis releives both. Life is tolerable again. Opioids are once, every other day. I was taking eight plus muscle relaxers. I also suffer from CHF which often leaves my with no energy, but a little cannabis and my outlook changes. Should have died 11yrs ago (statistically) but that “death spiral” s for OLD people. Sorry folks but I still got shit to do.😏

  7. Great essay, describe s the experience very well. I am new to MM, not to pot. I was introduced to the experience over 50 year s ago, when I was in Vietnam.
    Fortunately I had some fellow soldier’s who were experienced and made some of the points. In the above article.
    When I returned to the world Woodstock was happening.
    As life goes, I was presented with the need for a quick source of income. I joined the NYPD. It was for all the right reasons, to help society come together. Relations were much as they are today. Fractured!
    I was frustrated at every level, professionally, personally, etc, I persisted.
    After 25 years I retired.
    On my second marriage young children, etc.
    I spent 6 years working keeping busy, raising family, etc. Recovering.
    Trying to avoid the death spiral, with moderate success,

    Then 9/11, as per my nature I joined the Government’s effort to establish Homeland Security
    Stress was taking it’s toll.
    I wound up with a severe bout of depression, I sought medical help. I was prescribed the usual anti-depressant s and initially they helped.
    I took them for 15 years. I was in a state of decline. I perservered until I was
    Almost in the fetal position, in what I could only describe as ‘ a chemical lobodemy’.
    I took myself off the meds by substituting marijuana.
    I am currently recovering from this terrible Condition and look forward to each day with Hope and Anticipation.
    This essay describes it perfectly, Thank You So Much! I am Grateful To Be Alive!

  8. David Strong on

    Do the math:
    Results showed that laws that let people use marijuana to treat specific medical conditions were associated with about a 6 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing for pain. That’s about 39 fewer prescriptions per 1,000 people using Medicaid.

    100/6×39= 650
    Yes 650, who are the real drug-lords….medicaid tops the list. 650/1000…WOW I’VE HAD FRIENDS DIE. Now they cold turkey their prey and the even worse illicit drugs balloon the tolls.

    LEGALIZE MARIJUANA …..STOP THE BAD DOCS

    • What about the unfortunates, living in regressive Red states, who’ve had their pain meds cut in half or, worse, discontinued by their dr all because of the DEA/FDA/CDC? Most of these good people have no access to cannabis due to the states draconian anti cannabis law. Pathetic!!

  9. I just started using medical marijuana and I am now slowly taking myself off of all the meds that I am currently on. I have noticed a change in my attitude, emotions, pain, and sleeping pattern. I fully understand what Greg James was saying. I have noticed a change in my stress levels as well. Hopefully one day soon my supply of meds will lower to a minimum amount. Doctors have prescribed me so many meds that at age 44 years old, I am currently taking 18 meds to start my day. I was taking 20 but so far I stopped taking 2 meds on my way to 3.

  10. I am just really happy to see that there are people of the older generation that can tell others young and old about the good marijuana can do. I am also proof as a 45 yr old woman who is a recovering opioid addict, and also a sufferer of Anxiety and depression that marijuana has helped me tremendously. I no longer take my depression medication nor my anxiety meds which I was taking Xanax for many years. I no longer need them. I wish everyone would take the time to learn the benifits of this natural resource we have.

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