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Study links easier access to medical marijuana with reduced number of opioid deaths


PORTLAND, Ore. — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the opioid epidemic in the U.S. kills on average more than 115 people a day.

Researchers at the RAND Corporation wanted to know if medical marijuana can help lower the number of overdose deaths. They conducted what they call the most-detailed studyever on the topic, finding the link between medical pot and fewer opioid deaths to be complex and suggesting it all comes down to execution.

Opioids are drugs that include heroin, fentanyl and many prescription painkillers like OxyContin.

The federal government says the misuse of them remains a "serious national crisis."

David Powell is an economist for the RAND Corporation, a major global nonprofit policy think tank that conducts research and analysis.

"We were interested in understanding when states adopt medical marijuana laws, do they see a reduction in opioid-related overdoses?" Powell told KATU on Thursday.

Previous studies suggested that's the case, but Powell said he wanted to go further.

"We were interested in understanding the underlying mechanisms behind those reductions that have previously been observed," he explained. "We found that actually, we do see large reductions in opiate-related overdoses in states which have medical marijuana dispensaries."

In other states that take a more restricted approach to medical pot -- not allowing dispensaries -- he said you don't see the same effect.

"There's some evidence that suggests that medical marijuana is an effective pain management tool for many of the same types of pain that opioids are often used for," Powell said. "But medical marijuana doesn't come with the risk of overdoses."

Powell's study looked at data throughout the country from 1999 to 2013.

He said medical marijuana's impact on overdose deaths was reduced around 2009 after the Obama Administration asked states to more tightly regulate medical weed.

He did not look at the effect of legalized recreational marijuana.

Powell also said medical pot does not seem to impact overdose deaths from illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

“When you introduce medical marijuana maybe it does have this gateway effect for some people," he added. "But for many more people, it leads to a reduction in overdoses not an increase in overdoses.”

Powell emphasized that it's important to be careful about drawing conclusions from his study, saying that although it shows a correlation it does not explain causation in the relationship between access to medical marijuana and the number of opioid overdose deaths.

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) could provide no data in response to Powell's study.

"This is an interesting topic," Jonathan Modie, an OHA spokesman, told KATU via email. "But OHA has not studied, nor do we have any data on, any correlation between marijuana legalization—medical or recreational—and opioid overdoses, deaths and prescriptions."

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