For longstanding opponents of marijuana legalization, there is a growing body of statistical evidence that is becoming harder and harder to ignore. Many of the states that have now ended cannabis prohibition in one form or another, places like Colorado, California and Washington, have experienced undeniable possible social changes. Many of these improvements include decreases in crime statistics and the availability of cannabis for teenagers, but there is one area of development that may stand above the rest considering America’s ongoing social crisis. Legalizing cannabis has been one of very few social or governmental steps that has successfully helped to limit the spread of the opioid epidemic. The evidence for this can be found at the broad social level, as well as from research conducted on individual opioid users and patients who seek pain relief.
We can start with the potential positive effects that medical cannabis has at the individual level. There are a number of studies with encouraging findings, many of which display similar evidence as a 2016 piece published in the American Pain Society. This is a study which was undertaken to see if marijuana would be useful for supplementing traditional treatment of chronic pain, which affects over 100 million Americans at a total cost of around $635 billion. Of the participants in this research, medical cannabis use was associated with a 64 percent decrease the use of opioids, decreased number and side effects of medication, and an improved quality of life for 45 percent of people. The abstract of the paper also notes that “previous studies reported strong associations between passage of medical cannabis laws and decrease in opioid overdose statewide.”
From the standpoint of individual use, there is a stark difference between the potential dangers of opioids and cannabis. Data from a 2017 national survey on drug use found that 11.4 million people misused prescription opioids, with more than 130 dying every day from opioid-related drug overdose. As if the difference in safety could not be more obvious, there exists no evidence of a single cannabis overdose cited in the worldwide catalogue of medical literature.
Considering the devastating effects of opioid abuse and the safety of medical cannabis, it comes as no surprise that legalizing the latter has produced positive social outcomes. In the following two years after marijuana was legalized in Colorado, opioid-related deaths dropped by more than six percent. In his review of the Colorado study in 2017, Washington Post writer Christopher Ingram said that, “Marijuana is often highly effective at treating the same types of chronic pain that patients are often prescribed opiates for. Given the choice between marijuana and opiates, many patients appear to be opting for the former. From a public health standpoint, this is a positive development, considering that relative to opiates, marijuana carries essentially zero risk of fatal overdose.”
Even for those who are still under the spell of decades of anti-cannabis propaganda, it has become impossible to ignore the safety of cannabis when seen in comparison to opioids. As more states move to make marijuana legal, we will build a stronger body of data regarding the use of cannabis for chronic pain treatment. If you or someone you know is struggling with the use of prescription opioids, consider using medical marijuana as an alternative—it may save your life.