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Colorado Seeing Less Fatal Opiate Overdoses Since the Legalization of Marijuana

According to new research recently published in the American Journal of Public Health, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado has led to an unexpected "reversal" in the number of fatal overdoses the state is seeing that can be attributed to opiates. According to the authors of the study, opioid-related deaths have dropped more than six percent in the years since Colorado has legalized the recreational sale and use of cannabis products.

However, the authors do stress that these results are preliminary, given that the data included only dates back two years to when Colorado opened its first recreational marijuana shops. While several reports have been conducted analyzing the connections between medical marijuana and fatal overdoses related to opioids, this is one of the first that actually tackles recreational marijuana and its effects on such overdoses.

Marijuana is often being used to treat the same types of chronic pain that patients have been prescribed opiates for in the past. Now, when patients are offered a choice between opioids and marijuana, doctors are finding that patients opt for the latter. Public health officials are pleased with this development, as marijuana presents what is essentially no risk whatsoever to a person succumbing to a fatal overdose which, if the current opioid crisis proves anything, it's that opiates are incredibly dangerous in this respect.

This recent study published by the American Journal of Public Health supports the idea that not only is medical marijuana a safer choice than opioids, but that the same may hold true for recreational marijuana as well. This comes after the authors of the study analyzed trends in fatalities related to opiates both before and after Colorado opened its recreational marijuana market in 2014.

The authors here attempted to isolate recreational marijuana effects by comparing Colorado's numbers to those of Nevada's, a state that allowed medical marijuana during the same time period, but not recreational marijuana. The authors also attempted to correct the study for a change in the prescription drug monitoring program that Colorado was also conducting during the study period. Said change required that all physicians who regularly prescribed opioids to register with the program back in 2014, even if they did not use the program after registering.

After the authors controlled the study for both the medical marijuana provision and the drug monitoring program, they found that after Colorado's recreational marijuana law went into effect, fatal overdoses involving opioids fell about 6.5 percent over the course of the following two years.

The authors urge policymakers to follow the numbers in the next few years to see if the trend they've discovered continues. They are also interested in seeing whether states like Washington and Oregon – states that have recently approved recreational marijuana measures – sees similar decreases in the number of fatal overdoses related to opioids.

The authors do note that while legal marijuana may be decreasing fatal overdoses, it may also be contributing to deaths elsewhere, such as on Colorado's roadways. Though, more research is needed into this area before making any valid conclusions.