New study refutes link between medical marijuana & decline in fatal opioid overdoses

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It was right around five years ago when the cannabis advocacy community got wind of some science indicating that medical marijuana was reducing the number of opioid overdose deaths in states where it was legal.

This news was such a big deal that, over the years, not only has it become one of the most popular arguments for why the federal government should entertain marijuana reform at the national level — a handful of states have actually changed their laws allowing cannabis to be used as an alternative to opioids.

Some of us out here were skeptical of these findings. Anyone with experience in the two substances understands that they are entirely different from one another, and weed, as awesome as it is, might not have the ability alone to save America from the throes of opioid addiction. Well, it appears that science has finally caught up with real-time drug wisdom.

recent study published in the journal Proceeding of the National Academy of Science puts one of the talking points of the cannabis advocacy community in a challenging position.

Researchers at Stanford University say that, while the legalization of medical marijuana may have contributed to lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2010, that’s not the case today. When parts of the infamous 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania, which inspired the pro-legalization talking point, were replicated, results showed that rather than a reduction in the number of opioid overdose deaths, states with legal weed actually experienced an increase. The study plugged in data from states that had legalized medical marijuana from 2010 to 2017, and found that the number of people who succumbed to opioid overdose grew by 23% in these jurisdictions.

Too Much Faith, Not Enough Info

For any potential naysayers out there, the study authors stress that the two studies were conducted using the exact same methods — both pulled data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Therefore, if you bought into what the University of Pennsylvania was selling five years ago, it would be hypocritical to disregard the accuracy of the Stanford find.  

“If you believed the results of the first study, it’s hard to argue that you don’t believe the results of the second one, since the methods are the same,” Chelsea Shover, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford, told the Atlantic.

What cannabis advocates failed to recognize back in 2014 is the study never really pointed to medical marijuana as being a salvation’s wing for the opioid crisis. Now that marijuana legalization has taken hold in more parts of the country, this study found that there just doesn’t seem to be any correlation between legalization and a reduction in fatal opioid abuse.

In fact, back then, even the study authors were quick to point out that the research was built on shaky ground. They said: “Although the present study provides evidence that medical cannabis laws are associated with reductions in opioid analgesic overdose mortality on a population level, proposed mechanisms for this association are speculative and rely on indirect evidence.”

It was hardly enough science to spawn such an uprising in blind faith. Nevertheless, the study was considered a pivotal point for marijuana.

Sadly, it appears it just wasn’t real.

So Where Does That Leave Legalization?

This is not to say that marijuana is contributing to the opioid problem. That is unlikely. The prescription pads of doctors have been extremely animated over the past two decades or so, and the popularity of hard street drugs like heroin has found its way inside the homes of the average citizen. In the past few years, the country has also witnessed the introduction of fentanyl into the illicit market drug trade. It is a trend that has become so widespread that this substance alone is responsible for the bulk of the opioid overdose deaths.

Researchers say all their findings really mean is that opioids and marijuana “are separate issues.”

Researchers say all their findings really mean is that opioids and marijuana “are separate issues.”

“I think the most logical explanation is that these two things are not causally related,” Shover explained in an interview with Inverse. “We saw an association before, we see the opposite now. We don’t think cannabis was saving people before and killing people now. We think these are two unrelated things. If one is not causing the other, it’s not surprising that the relationship looks different,” she added.

The most important thing to remember here is we, as a nation, do not need marijuana to be a medicinal superhero to the masses in order for it to be legal. Cannabis doesn’t have to save us from opioids, cancer or any other blight to the existence of the human race in order for legalization and other reforms around cannabis policy to be worth supporting.

Sure, there is evidence that some people are using marijuana as a way to deal with chronic pain, in the same way they might use ibuprofen. But there has always been some contention as to whether the herb was strong and effective enough to cut through severe pain conditions. That doesn’t mean that cannabis doesn’t deserve to be legal.

Furthermore, the majority of Americans caught up in opioid addiction could never be swayed to replace the feel-good effects of painkillers with the marijuana high. If this were the case, they may have never used opioids in the first place. These drugs, while lighting up some of the same parts of the brain, really are different in so many ways.

Whether or not marijuana has the power to help pull the nation out of its addict daze should have no bearing on the progress of legalization in the United States. It produces jobs, boosts local and state economies and all at no increased harm to society. This is all that is important at this juncture.

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