Death rates from opioid overdoses appear to decline after new cannabis dispensaries open, according to a study of mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study focused on 812 counties in 23 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that allowed cannabis dispensaries to sell recreational or medical marijuana. Across all the counties in the study, the average number of cannabis dispensaries increased from slightly less than one per county in 2014 to more than four by 2018.
When the number of cannabis dispensaries in a county increased from one to two, researchers estimated that overall opioid mortality rates fell by 17 percent.
Death rates from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are responsible for a greater proportion of opioid fatalities in the United States, dropped by 14 percent when the number of medical marijuana dispensaries increased from one to two, and declined by 21 percent with a similar increase in recreational marijuana dispensaries.
Two things might be driving the reduction in opioid-related deaths in communities with more cannabis dispensaries, says W. David Bradford, PhD, a professor of public policy and administration at the University of Georgia in Athens who wasn’t involved in the study.
“First, the availability of cannabis in the local community leads to substitution away from opioids, and that substitution slows the advancement of opioid use disorder in some people, which reduces risky opioid use and so reduces accidental death,” Dr. Bradford says.
It’s also possible that there are some situations where cannabis dispensaries open up in communities that tend to lure lots of other new businesses as well — typically places with lower crime rates and higher household incomes, Bradford says. Some of these safer, more affluent neighborhoods that are attractive locations for new dispensaries may already have lower opioid death rates than places where dispensaries don’t open, he says.
Most likely, both substitution of opioids for less lethal cannabis and community characteristics share responsibility for the connection between rising numbers of dispensaries and falling opioid death rates, Bradford says.
Published: February 09, 2021
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