Cannabis Legalization Linked To Reduced Opioid Use

Written by Lydia Kariuki

For the longest time, cannabis use (“gateway drug”) has been associated with the abuse of harder drugs.  A recent study has contrasted this theory again by demonstrating that in states where recreational use of cannabis is legal, cannabis provided an alternative to opioid misuse. This led to reduced pharmacy sales of codeine which is highly likely to be abused non-medically.

Opioid abuse is at epidemic levels in the US and affects about 3 million adults. A group of researchers analyzed Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) data that tracks the use of controlled substances through the Automated Reports and Consolidated Ordering System (ARCOS).

Overall, they found a 26% reduction in pharmacy distribution for codeine. This is possibly attributed to the massive federal and state efforts geared towards minimizing opioid abuse.

In states that had legalized recreational cannabis for four years at least, the reduction was 37%. It was inferred that the availability of recreational cannabis was correlated to a decrease in codeine abuse. However, there was no significant change in hospital distribution of codeine or distribution of other opioids, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine. The lead author of the study Shyam Raman concluded that reduction in opioid misuse is an overlooked potential benefit of legalizing cannabis.

Drug overdose related to opioid misuse caused over 260,000 deaths in the US in 2020. This figure increased five-fold between 1999 and 2020. Such a trend is worrying and underscores the importance of measures to reduce opioid misuse. While legalizing cannabis may not be it, there’s definitely more benefit than harm in doing so.

About the author

Lydia Kariuki