Legal medical marijuana leads to big drop in opioid-related hospital visits: study

A link has been found between medical marijuana legalization and a drop in opioid-related hospital visits.
A link has been found between medical marijuana legalization and a drop in opioid-related hospital visits. AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File

The legalization of medical marijuana in several American states has been linked with a drop in hospital visits due to opioids, according to a new study.

Medical marijuana legalization coincided with a 23 per cent drop in hospitalizations for opioid dependence or abuse, analysis of hospital administrative records from 28 states showed.

Hospitalization for opioid overdoses dropped 13 per cent.

READ MORE: More Canadian babies born with opioid addiction and withdrawal

Meanwhile, medical marijuana legalization had no impact on marijuana-related hospitalizations.

“While the interpretation of the results should remain cautious, this study suggested that medical marijuana policies were not associated with marijuana-related hospitalizations,” wrote study author Yuyan Shi, professor of public health at the University of California, San Diego.

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“Instead, the policies were unintendedly associated with substantial reductions in opioid pain reliever-related hospitalizations.”

Abuse of opioids, powerful and highly addictive painkillers, has grown both in Canada and the U.S.

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The epidemic has prompted Canadian medical experts to call for an overhaul in the way chronic pain is treated, including updating the best practice guidelines for opioid prescribing methods at a national level.

READ MORE: Politicians search for national solution to Canada’s opioid crisis at summit in Ottawa

Medical marijuana was first made legal in Canada in 2001; the Liberal government is now in the process of fully legalizing marijuana.

Marijuana brings with it health concerns of its own, including impairment, mental health issues, and respiratory issues.

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READ MORE: Opioid crisis a national public emergency and Ottawa needs to act, medical experts say

While it’s “premature” to advocate the use of marijuana as a strategy to curb opioid abuse, Shi wrote, the findings are worth exploring.

“Policymakers should take into consideration these positive unintended consequences while legalizing medical marijuana.”

The findings were recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

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