Researchers at the Pitt Graduate School of Public Health found that in the first half of 2017 California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all saw a 7.6% decline in opioid-related emergency room visits but that those rates returned to pre-legalization levels after the six months, according to a WESA outline of the study.
However, Coleman Drake, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of health policy and management, said the researchers found no “evidence to support the theory that cannabis functions as a gateway drug.”
“If anything, we find that recreational cannabis legalization decreases opioid-related emergency department visits. … Cannabis is a substitute for pain relief, but it’s not a treatment for opioid use disorder. People might be finding that cannabis does help treat pain for opioid use disorder, but ultimately isn’t treating other symptoms of the condition.”— Drake to WESA
The study focused on California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada because the states had only legalized cannabis for adults in 2016. The study notes that the reduction in opioid-related ER visits was “driven by men and adults aged 25-44.” It also stressed, “while cannabis liberalization may offer some help in curbing the opioid epidemic, it is likely not a panacea.”
Drake noted that there have not yet been enough “high-quality studies” on post-legalization issues, such as opioid use or related ER visits, and Alice Bell of Prevention Point Pittsburgh, a nonprofit specializing in drug user health and harm reduction agreed, noting that it is hard to draw hard conclusions from the study.
“This data hopefully once and for all puts a nail in the coffin that marijuana is a ‘gateway drug,’” Bell said in the report. “It would be useful to do qualitative research and ask people who use drugs what they are actually doing.”
The study, “Recreational cannabis laws and opioid-related emergency department visit rates,” was published July 12 in the Health Economics Letter.
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