Marijuana buds

Marijuana buds. Photo by Katheirne Hitt. Creative commons license.

A study by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health recently found that fewer car accidents are caused by those under the influence of opioid narcotics in states where cannabis use is legal.

Our pot dealers have been telling this for decades!

Kidding aside, this is one of the first studies from a major university to actually assess the correlation between medical marijuana laws and opioid use on the individual level. It’s no longer just coming from a bunch of potheads who don’t have the science to back their experience.

Using the 1999-2013 Fatality Analysis Reporting System data from 18 U.S. states that tested for alcohol and other drugs in at least 80 percent of drivers who died within an hour of the crash, researches looked at opioid positivity among drivers ages 21 to 40. The data was pulled from states with an operational medical marijuana law and run against data from drivers who were in accidents before those laws went into effect. They found that there was an overall reduction in those who tested positive for opioids — drugs like heroin, oxy, morphine, vicodin and other pharmaceuticals — after the states legalized medical marijuana.

“We would expect the adverse consequences of opioid use to decrease over time in states where medical marijuana use is legal, as individuals substitute marijuana for opioids in the treatment of severe or chronic pain,” explained June H. Kim, a doctoral student in the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, and the lead author.

Related: I Tried Whoopi Goldberg’s Medical Cannabis for Periods, and It’s Awesome

California was the first state to pass laws allowing for medical marijuana usage, leading the way in 1996. Washington, D.C., and 22 states have since followed suit, allowing those with prescriptions to access marijuana legally. Other things likely to decrease are overdoses, kidney and liver diseases, and other issues related to chronic opioid usage.

“The trend may have been particularly strong among the age group surveyed because minimum age requirements restrict access to medical marijuana to patients age 21 and older, and most medical marijuana patients are younger than 45,” noted Kim.

According to the study’s authors, we could expect the trend to be similar among folks over 45 if medical marijuana is increasingly embraced by older generations. Addicts just aren’t what the media and Hollywood teaches us they look like: gaunt, young bohemians looking for a fix. Seniors are actually the most likely to overdose on opiates.

Of the 23,000 deaths in the U.S. attributed to prescription drug overdose in 2013, more than 70 percent resulted from the abuse of opioid painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The drugs were mostly hydrocodone and oxycodone — Vicodin and Oxycontin. Medicare data from 2014 shows that 8.5 million Americans aged 65 or older received opioid scripts from their doctors.

No one talks about the elderly population’s increasing need for pain relief and its toxic outcome for many. It has become a hidden epidemic.

Many people think of the opioid problem as something that’s affecting young people who are abusing painkillers that were not prescribed to them. The opioid problem is perhaps even more severe in older Americans who are receiving legitimate prescriptions from doctors. We see the highest rate of drug overdose death in older Americans. And when you look at the groups that have had the greatest increase in problems associated with prescription opioids –for example, visits to hospital emergency rooms because of opioid misuse — it’s Americans over 65,” says Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer of the Phoenix House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

“When an older person doesn’t wake up in the morning, let’s say, because they overdosed on prescription opioids in their sleep, what typically happens is the family will call 9-1-1. And if EMS or the police come to the scene, there’s nothing suspicious there.  And if the patient had multiple medical problems, what’s often done is the patient’s doctors are called and asked to come to the home and fill out the death certificate. Very often, a natural cause is listed as the reason for the death, rather than an opioid overdose, even in a situation where everybody knew Grandma had a problem with her pills.

“Nobody wants Grandma’s body to go to the medical examiner for toxicology and autopsy. They want Grandma to go to the funeral parlor. No one wants Grandma to have died of a drug overdose. So there’s very good reason to believe that even with the already high overdose death statistics in older Americans that we have, there may be a massive undercount.”

The takeaway from this is that there could be fewer elderly folks addicted or dependent upon toxic opioids and more opportunities for them to function freely using a natural medicine. While smoking is still dangerous, cannabinoid (CBD) tinctures and edible extracts are much safer.

“This study is about the possible substitution relationship between marijuana and opioids. The toxicological testing data for fatally injured drivers lend some suggestive evidence that supports the substitution hypothesis in young adults, but not in older adults,” says Guohua Li, Mailman School professor of Epidemiology, the founding director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia, and a senior author of the study.

The study comes as several states, including California, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota will be voting in November whether to legalize medical or recreational marijuana. It’s telling that some of the biggest funders of anti-legalization campaigns are pharmaceutical companies, such as Insys Therapeutics Inc., which makes a fast-acting version of fentanyl, a powerful narcotic.

“As states with these laws move toward legalizing marijuana more broadly for recreational purposes, future studies are needed to assess the impact these laws may have on opioid use,” Kim says.

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