Study: More Cannabis Stores = Lower Opioid Deaths

A new study published in the British Medical Journal has discovered that opioid overdose deaths are lower in counties where marijuana dispensary storefronts are allowed. Rates of opioid addiction are also lower in areas where the populace has access to legal, regulated cannabis dispensaries.

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The study by Greta Hsu, at the University of California Davis Graduate School of Management and Balázs Kovács at the Yale School of Management suggests that medical marijuana is not only life enhancing but literally life saving.

The researchers admit they have not established cause and effect between the availability of legal cannabis dispensary storefronts and a reduction in fatal overdoses from opioids. Hsu and Kovács have managed to quantify the savings of lives prematurely ended by opioid overdoses: Opioid death rates drop approximately 17 percent below average in areas where residents have access to one regulated cannabis storefront. In localities that have two marijuana dispensaries, rates of fatal opioid overdoses are reduced by approximately 21 percent.

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This New Study Is Different From Past Findings Where Cannabis Reduces Opioid Use

The U.C. Davis study is the first time researchers have dug into the potential beneficial relationship between cannabis storefronts and reduced opioid deaths at the county level.

By examining opioid overdose deaths and cannabis storefront prevalence in the 812 United States counties where legal cannabis dispensaries were operating by the end of 2017, the researchers were able to assemble pinpointed documentation. The localized approach is personal to the town of Davis.

U.C. Davis is located within California’s Yolo County. The Cannabis Land Use Ordinance of Yolo County’s Planning Commission has not recommended storefront dispensaries in the county.

The Yolo County city of Woodland allows regulated cannabis manufacturing and testing facilities. Dispensaries are prohibited. Davis is the only city in Yolo County that allows storefront dispensaries.

On January 19, 2021, Kimberly Cargile, the owner of Yolo County Family Farms and Woodland Roots, addressed a meeting of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors. Cargile argued that legal cannabis storefront dispensaries benefit the community, especially seniors.

“I own dispensaries in Sacramento, Davis and Dixon,” Cargile said. “We have thousands of members who must drive 30 minutes to an hour from rural Yolo County in order to access the education and variety of medical products that we offer.”

Cargile warned that Yolo County residents might take their business and cannabis tax revenues to neighboring counties.

Left unsaid, was the possibility that some residents unwilling to drive half an hour to reach an operating cannabis storefront will simply turn to opioids closer to home.

Reading a dispensary menu - smoke shop and medical marijuana dispensary neon sign

How Bad Are Opioid Addiction and Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Right Now?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which keeps track of how many people in the United States are killed by drug overdoses every year, counted 46,802 opioid related overdose deaths in 2018, or nearly 70 percent of the country’s drug overdose deaths.

As a category of drugs, opioids include heroin, prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

The CDC reports that Covid 19 pandemic and quarantine stress have caused spikes in opioid reliance and fatalities.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D.

Redfield notes that drug overdose deaths were on the rise prior to the 2020 Covid 19 shutdowns. Those fatalities accelerated at a much steeper rate once Covid restrictions fell into place. In the 12 months ending in May 2020, more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths were recorded in the United States, a national record for any one-year span.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid widely manufactured in illicit labs, is emerging as the main culprit in spiking overdose deaths. In the 12-month period ending May 2020:

  • 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions compiling opioid data tracked increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.
  • 18 out of 37 jurisdictions reported opioid deaths increasing by more than 50 percent.
  • In 10 western states, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, led by fentanyl, jumped by 98 percent and more.

Why Is a Study of Marijuana Dispensaries Relevant to Opioid Deaths?

Researchers Greta Hsu and Balázs Kovács found that fatal fentanyl overdoses were the most sharply reduced death rates uncovered by the study.

The study’s lead author, Greta Hsu of the U.C. Davis Graduate School of Management, proposes that alternative pain management treatments, such as medicinal cannabis products, could reduce catastrophic public health outcomes.

“The associations … suggest a potential relationship between increased prevalence of medical and recreational cannabis dispensaries and reduced opioid-related mortality rates,” said Professor Hsu. “Given the alarming rise in the U.S.’s fentanyl-based market and in deaths involving fentanyl and its analogs in recent years, the question of how legal cannabis availability relates to opioid-related deaths can be regarded as a particularly pressing one.”

Hsu believes that policymakers need to understand the impact of cannabis legalization as it pertains to reducing opioid abuse. The potential public health benefits of legal cannabis need to be considered when lawmakers debate making marijuana obtainable through cannabis dispensary storefronts.

Is it legal to grow medical marijuana?

Cannabis as Harm Reduction: the Science is Sound

There is some good evidence suggesting that, yes, medical cannabis is an appropriate treatment for chronic pain. This is because:

  • CB1 receptors and opioid receptors are found in many of the same areas of the brain. The two act synergistically, and cannabinoid receptors “talk” to and influence the way opioid receptors behave.
  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is useful as an analgesic (painkiller), appetite stimulant and nausea suppressant. THC may also reduce cravings.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is useful for treating a low mood and chronic pain. CBD changes the way opioid receptors receive pain signals by turning down the volume of such signals.
  • Beta-caryophyllene (a terpene commonly found in cannabis, as well as black pepper) has anti-inflammatory and anti-addictive properties.
  • Using medical cannabis can help reduce the number of medications needed, including antidepressants and sedatives as well as opioids. This can help reduce the chances of overdose.
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In a Catch 22 dilemma, the kind of cannabis studies needed to validate the public health benefits of legalizing marijuana nationally are severely restricted because marijuana is illegal on the national level.

Legislation to expand access to marijuana research is currently pending in the United States Congress. Whether or not cannabis research receives federal approval, many more lives that might have been saved by the presence of a cannabis dispensary storefront will be lost while the decision is being made.

Written by
Allan MacDonell
Allan MacDonell

Allan MacDonell’s work has been featured in publications ranging from Dazed and Confused UK to the New York Times and Washington Post. He is the author of Prisoner of X, Punk Elegies and Now That I Am Gone, and was a founding editorial director at online outlets including Buzznet, TakePart and Kindland. MacDonell views teaming with Leafwell as an opportunity to encourage the emerging role of legal cannabis as a highly effective medical treatment.

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