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Legal Marijuana Helps Reduce Opioid Harms, Two More New Studies Reveal

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Another day, another round of studies suggesting that legalizing marijuana can help mitigate the harms of the opioid epidemic.

This time, one study published last week in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence looked at how adult-use legalization impacted opioid prescriptions. And a separate recently published research paper explored how medical cannabis dispensaries affect opioid overdoses.

Both studies bode well for reform advocates who’ve argued that legal marijuana can serve as a safer alternative to prescription painkillers. Here’s what you need to know about each new paper:

1. Adult-use legalization is associated with a decrease in the number of prescriptions, total doses and spending on opioids among Medicaid enrollees.

Researchers examined prescription data for Medicaid enrollees from 2010 to 2017. The team found “no evidence to support the concern that recreational marijuana legalization increased opioid prescriptions received by Medicaid enrollees.”

Rather, implementing a fully legal cannabis system in 2015 was linked to a 32 percent decrease in the total number of opioid prescriptions, a 30 percent decrease in the number of doses and a 31 percent decrease in spending on Schedule III opioids.

2. Deaths from opioid and heroin overdoses are lower in counties where medical cannabis dispensaries operate.

Looking at mortality data from 2009 to 2015, researchers found that counties with medical cannabis dispensaries experienced significantly lower rates of opioid and heroin overdoses, compared to counties without dispensaries.

Specifically, the average mortality rate for any opioid overdose increased by .37 per 100,000 people in counties without dispensaries from 2009 to 2015, while it increased by .07 per 100,000 people in counties with dispensaries during the same time period. Prescription opioid mortality rates “increased by 0.05 in dispensary-counties and rose by .2 in non-dispensary counties,” according to the study.

Mortality rates associated with heroin overdoses increased by .61 per 100,000 people in counties with marijuana dispensaries, while increasing by nearly 1 per 100,000 in non-dispensary counties.

Both new studies come on the heels of yet another round of research on cannabis and opioids issues that came out earlier this month

Three New Studies Reveal How Legal Marijuana Can Help Curb Opioids

Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Science & Health

Hemp Is For Horses? New Study Examines CBD’s Calming And Painkilling Effects In Animals

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Imagine you’re a race horse. Do you get nervous before the starting bell?

Scientists are curious to learn if CBD might help.

The hype around cannabidiol has hit the equestrian world hard since the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalized industrial hemp and its derivatives, including CBD. While federal officials have yet to finalize rules formally allowing the non-intoxicating cannabinoid in animal feed—or in food products for humans for that matter—CBD supplements have become hot products among horse owners looking to ease pain, reduce pain in muscles and joints and calm signs of stress in their animals.

Now researchers want to know if they actually work. A Texas-based team is currently collecting data on how CBD affects equine physiology. In particular, their new study is examining whether the cannabis compound can help reduce stress, inflammation and obsessive compulsive behaviors in horses.

“I had been interested in the CBD movement for a while, and primarily it is because we’re in a highly horse-populated area,” said Kimberly Guay, a professor at Tarleton State University in Stephenville who specializes in how stress affects animals. “A lot of the horse people I knew were already using CBD, illegally you would say, because it wasn’t legal in Texas at the time.”

Guay’s team is experimenting by giving horses various doses of CBD, generally in the form of oils and edible pellets, and then assessing how they respond. Researchers monitor the animals’ heart rates, inflammation and levels of cortisol, a hormone animals produce under stress. They also observe the horses’ behavior, looking for how CBD affects behavioral indications of pain, stiffness or anxiety.

Guay herself said she has no vested interest in the outcome of the study and doesn’t currently give CBD to her own horse, but she’s eager to see whether the data support what she’s heard from other owners. “The anecdotal evidence is incredibly strong,” Guay told Marijuana Moment in an interview. “And if there is a chance to mediate stress, then I’m all for it.”

The team is aiming to publish the results of the study next year, but Guay said some initial findings could be available as soon as this fall.

“I still can’t say one way or the other, but I know there’s no adverse effects, apparently,” she said, explaining that researchers have given some animals “a significant dose, and there was no obvious adverse reactions from it.”

Across the country, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which sets the rules for most of the country’s competitive horse events, noted last year that “cannabinoids have gained increased attention and have become nearly mainstream.”

But the rulemaking body said that a horse testing positive for CBD violates competition rules because the cannabinoid is “likely to [affect] the performance of a horse due to its reported anxiolytic effects,” referring to the compound’s apparent role in reducing anxiety.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating the country’s animal feed, and so far CBD has been forbidden. Guay said that if the horse study shows positive results, CBD could also be looked at as a supplement for livestock used for food production.

“If there’s some version of the byproduct of the plant in hemp that could be utilized or incorporated into feed or whatever that could help minimize stress for livestock animals, that would be a huge benefit,” she said.

Currently stress in livestock is managed either with behavioral controls, such as limiting the amount of time animals spend in confined spaces, or through the use of sedative drugs. But sedatives, Guay said, can affect an animal’s balance and its ability to regulate body temperature.

Anecdotally, horse owners who experimented with giving CBD to their animals continued using it “because they believed so strongly in the effects CBD was giving them without the need for sedation,” Guay said.

“That intrigued me,” she added. “We can get the empirical evidence, it’s just going to take time and some effort.”

Most horse owners she’s talked to are on board with the study, Guay said, and are eager to hear the results. But stigma around CBD, even when produced from industrial hemp, remains evident in her home state of Texas, which legalized hemp and CBD production in mid-2019. Federal regulators approved the state’s hemp plan last month.

Guay told Marijuana Moment that she’d been interested in studying the effects of CBD on horses prior to Texas legalizing, but the university system was wary. “I had been chasing this project for a year before it was legal in Texas, and the A&M system would not give me clearance,” she said. “I knew the wave was coming.”

Even today, there are still lingering fears. “People holler at [research assistants] on the phone and voice their opinion,” Guay said, “and some people hang up on them because of that stereotype, that stigma that comes with CBD so far.”

Among the broader veterinary community, that stigma is slowly fading. A survey last year found that most veterinarians consider themselves fairly knowledgeable about recommending cannabinoid therapy for dogs, for example. The problem? Respondents said their state veterinary associations didn’t provide specific guidance on the subject, even in states where cannabis was legal. They also felt research was lacking.

More research is coming, even if it’s not quite keeping up with industry hype. In his annual budget proposal released last week, President Donald Trump directed $500,000 to the FDA’s Animal Drugs and Feeds program in order to “strengthen its capacity to evaluate scientific data related to the safe use of cannabis and cannabis derivatives in animal products.”

Asked if she’d tried CBD herself since Texas legalized the products, Guay at Tarleton State said she had. “Of course I’m going to try it,” she replied. “We’re making our animals ingest it, so I wanted to see what their experience is. They can’t talk.”

She hasn’t noticed many effects so far from cannabis oils, she said, other than “some versions taste terrible.” But after recently using a topical cream, she felt the product may actually have helped. “I have tennis elbow, and I rubbed it on my elbow, and I feel like it significantly helps my elbow. It reduced the pain in my elbow,” she said.

Despite a positive result, Guay knows her evidence is only anecdotal. She knows better than to put stock in what could be a placebo affect.

“I’d have to quantify it,” she said. “I always need numbers.”

FDA Would Be Required To Allow CBD Product Marketing Under New Bipartisan Bill

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Lasers Can Tell Hemp And Marijuana Apart With ‘100 Percent Accuracy,’ Scientists Reveal

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Hemp can look and smell like marijuana, presenting a series of challenges to law enforcement and farmers alike. But according to new research, lasers can be used to tell the difference between the two cannabis crops in a fast, affordable and highly precise way.

In a study published last month in the journal RSC Advances, a team of researchers at Texas A&M University were able to “determine whether plant material is hemp or [marijuana] with 100% accuracy” by using a hand-held laser device called a Raman spectrometer (RS).

To test whether the tool could effectively distinguish the two plants, fresh samples of hemp and marijuana strains were frozen, which, according to the authors, “does not result in any noticeable changes in plant appearance or texture.”

The researchers observed that lasers could reliably map a “change of intensities” in vibrational bands, which indicated “structural differences between hemp and [marijuana] plants.”

The results found that hemp has more cellulose, compared to marijuana plants.

“Because of the portable nature of our analysis, this spectroscopic approach will be highly advantageous for police and border control officers.”

The Raman spectrometer was also shown to potentially identify different strains by accurately measuring the potency of individual plants, which “can be used for confirmatory, non-invasive and non-destructive detection and identification of cannabis,” the authors wrote.

The researchers noted that their device detects delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) which is itself non-psychoactive but turns into the intoxicating compound THC when it undergoes decarboxylation (usually by being heated). “[W]e can speculate that RS allows to predict the amount of THC in the analyzed sample without necessary oxidation of THCA to THC,” they wrote.

Additional laboratory testing is underway “to determine accuracy and range” of THCA prediction with the device.

Hemp is defined under federal law as having no more than 0.3 percent total THC, with a negligence threshold of 0.5 percent. And while there’s strong bipartisan interest in ensuring that hemp farmers have the resources they need following the crop’s federal legalization, proving that the plant isn’t marijuana currently requires costly and lengthy laboratory analysis.

“These results demonstrate that RS can be a great tool for hemp cultivation and breeding allowing for accurate detection of THCA levels in intact growing plants.”

With the right tools, officials could quickly determine whether a plant in question is hemp or marijuana, which remains prohibited federally and in several states.

In December, a Texas man was arrested when his vehicle was found hauling more than a ton of cannabis through Amarillo. The plants were seized, and the driver spent almost a month in jail before lab results showed he was transporting hemp.

Other similar discrepancies and mistakes are likely to keep occurring in states and municipalities across the country as new hemp laws come online.

Marijuana prosecutions in Texas were cut in half after hemp laws changed, for example, an unintentional side effect of expanding access to the non-intoxicating cannabis crop. Because police officers in many cases can’t determine whether a cannabis sample is legal hemp or illegal marijuana, prosecutors in the state and others across the country have stopped pursuing many cases until testing methods are more readily available.

The promising new laser technology could mean fewer headaches on the part of state and federal regulators—and a lower risk of getting tied up with law enforcement for law-abiding hemp traders.

“These findings suggest that a hand-held Raman spectrometer can be an ideal tool for police officers and hemp breeders to enable highly accurate diagnostics of THCA content in plants,” the researchers concluded.

USDA Won’t Increase THC Limit On Hemp Despite Requests From Farmers And Lawmakers

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Workers’ Compensation Claims Decline In States With Medical Marijuana, Study Shows

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Legalizing medical marijuana leads to fewer and cheaper workers’ compensation claims, according to a new study.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati Ash Blue College and Temple University concluded that permitting medical cannabis “can allow workers to better manage symptoms associated with workplace injuries and illnesses and, in turn, reduce need for [workers’ compensation].”

The first-of-its-kind research, published last week in the academic journal Health Economics, shows a 6.7 percent decline in such claims in states after enacting medical marijuana laws.

“Our estimates show that, post [medical marijuana law], [workers’ compensation] claiming declines, both the propensity to claim and the level of income from WC.”

By analyzing survey data, which featured annual interviews from 150,000 U.S. residents aged 15 or older spanning from 1989 to 2012, the authors describe the effects as “quite modest in size,” finding a 0.1 percent drop in “propensity to claim” and a 0.8 percent reduction in the monetary amount of claims when medical marijuana was available. The authors concluded that the result “may not reflect economically significant changes” despite the results being “statistically significant.”

“These findings offer suggestive evidence that, post [medical marijuana law], workers use marijuana medically to treat symptoms associated with work-related injuries and illnesses and that marijuana is effective in reducing symptom burden associated with these ailments.”

Additionally, the study reports other positive effects that expanding access to medical cannabis can have in the workplace, including increasing “work capacity among older adults, reduce work absences, improve workplace safety, and reduce [workers’ compensation] claiming and the pain and suffering associated with workplace injuries.”

The researchers wrote the study adds to the small, but steady, growing body of research observing the impacts medical marijuana laws have on labor markets. Other research points to the economic power cannabis access can have on business. One recent study found that “a multitude of positive effects” on firms headquartered in states that have medical marijuana laws on the books.

When it comes to worker health, other studies have pointed to the effects that marijuana has on people living with chronic pain and other ailments that cannabis has been shown to help. And according to similar research, people are using cannabis to replace potentially lethal opioid prescriptions.

Another study found that workplace deaths reduced by 34 percent five years after a state legalized medical marijuana, suggesting easier access could be beneficial in lowering fatal workplace incidents.

Workplace Deaths Drop After States Legalize Medical Marijuana

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