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Legalizing Medical Marijuana Does Not Prevent Opioid-related Deaths, Study Says

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A new study has dispelled the notion that legalizing medical marijuana can prevent opioid-related deaths.

A previous study in 2014 found lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses in the states that had legalized marijuana for medical purposes than in states where marijuana remained illegal. According to that study, opioid-related deaths were nearly 25 percent lower in the 13 U.S. states that had legalized medical marijuana then.

That research received substantial attention in the scientific literature and media. It also served as a talking point for the cannabis industry and its advocates.
As a result, more states legalized marijuana for medical use after it was touted as a solution to the U.S. opioid overdose crisis.

However, the new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine shows that death rates from opioid overdoses were actually almost 23 percent higher in states that have passed medical marijuana laws. The findings contradict the 2014 study's findings.

The new study's findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or PNAS. The study used the same methods as the 2014 study.

The new study also found that between 1999 and 2010, opioid-related deaths declined in states that introduced medical marijuana. However, the trend began to reverse in the following years up to 2017.

Using the full dataset for the years from 1999 to 2017, the study found that states that had passed a medical cannabis law experienced a 22.7 percent increase in opioid-overdose deaths.

Further, the study uncovered no evidence that either broader (recreational) or more restrictive (low-tetrahydrocannabinol or low THC) cannabis laws were associated with changes in opioid overdose mortality.

"If you think opening a bunch of dispensaries is going to reduce opioid deaths, you'll be disappointed. We don't think cannabis is killing people, but we don't think it's saving people," study author Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

"Research into therapeutic potential of cannabis should continue, but the claim that enacting medical cannabis laws will reduce opioid overdose death should be met with skepticism," the study concludes.

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