Letting people legally access marijuana appears to reduce reliance on addictive opioids, two new studies published by the American Medical Association find.
“Medical cannabis laws are associated with significant reductions in opioid prescribing in the Medicare Part D population,” concludes one paper from researchers at the University of Georgia, Athens. “This finding was particularly strong in states that permit dispensaries, and for reductions in hydrocodone and morphine prescriptions.”
The second study, from scientists at the University of Kentucky and Emory University, noted that “marijuana is one of the potential nonopioid alternatives that can relieve pain at a relatively lower risk of addiction and virtually no risk of overdose.” It found that laws allowing medical cannabis or recreational marijuana “have the potential to lower opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a high-risk population for chronic pain, opioid use disorder, and opioid overdose.”
“Marijuana liberalization may serve as a component of a comprehensive package to tackle the opioid epidemic,” the researchers conclude.
The two papers, released Monday by JAMA Internal Medicine, a publication of the AMA, looked at use of opioids such as fentanyl by people enrolled in Medicare and Medicaid, with both examinations finding that states with legal marijuana access saw lower reliance on the pharmaceutical drugs.
And the easier the access to legal marijuana, the lower the rate of opioid prescribing.
“States with active dispensaries saw 3.742 million fewer daily doses filled; states with home cultivation only [laws] saw 1.792 million fewer filled daily doses,” one of the studies, which focused on medical cannabis laws, found.
The other new paper shows that while medical marijuana is associated with reduced opioid prescriptions, recreational laws have an even greater effect.
“State implementation of medical marijuana laws was associated with a 5.88% lower rate of opioid prescribing,” the authors wrote. “Moreover, the implementation of adult-use marijuana laws, which all occurred in states with existing medical marijuana laws, was associated with a 6.38% lower rate of opioid prescribing.”
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) recently suggested that pharmaceutical companies oppose marijuana legalization for selfish reasons.
“To them it’s competition for chronic pain, and that’s outrageous because we don’t have the crisis in people who take marijuana for chronic pain having overdose issues,” she said. “It’s not the same thing. It’s not as highly addictive as opioids are.”
The results of the new studies add to a growing body of research indicating that legal marijuana access is associated with reduced opioid issues.
In 2014, for example, a previous JAMA study showed that states with medical cannabis laws have roughly 25 percent lower opioid overdose rates.
A separate analysis published in February concluded that “legally protected and operating medical marijuana dispensaries reduce opioid-related harms,” suggesting that “some individuals may be substituting towards marijuana, reducing the quantity of opioids they consume or forgoing initiation of opiates altogether.”
And previous work by Ashley and David Bradford of the University of Georgia, who authored one of the new studies released on Monday, showed broad reductions in Medicare and Medicaid pain prescriptions when state medical cannabis laws went into effect. Their new paper builds on that by zeroing in on opioid painkillers and showing that the type of state marijuana law has an effect on the reduction in prescriptions.
“The type of [medical cannabis law] matters,” David Bradford said in an email. “Dispensaries have the biggest effect.”
The other paper, by the Kentucky and Emory researchers, tabulated reductions in opioid prescriptions associated with changes in laws, finding that medical cannabis policies lead to 39.41 fewer opioid prescriptions per 1,000 enrollees annually and that the effect for recreational legalization was even larger.
“Furthermore, the implementation of adult-use marijuana laws was associated with a 9.78% lower Medicaid spending on prescription opioids, equivalent to an annual saving of $1,815 Medicaid spending per 1,000 enrollees,” the study found. “The implementation of medical and adult-use marijuana laws was also associated with a lower rate of Medicaid-covered prescriptions for nonopioid pain medications of 8.36% and 8.69%, respectively.”
The research teams behind both new studies said that medical cannabis shows promise as a partial solution to opioid issues.
“Combined with previously published studies suggesting cannabis laws are associated with lower opioid mortality, these findings further strengthen arguments in favor of considering medical applications of cannabis as one tool in the policy arsenal that can be used to diminish the harm of prescription opioids,” the Bradfords’ Georgia team wrote. “Furthermore, a growing consensus suggests that cannabis can be used to effectively manage pain in some patients. If initial licit prescriptions for opioids can be reduced, then there is a plausible theoretical pathway to anticipate that opioid misuse and abuse could also fall.”
When legal marijuana is available, some patients appear to be more likely to choose it instead of prescription pain pills that can lead to addiction or overdose.
“Most opioid use disorder and overdose cases occurred in patients with legitimate prescriptions from health care professionals for pain management. Marijuana liberalization, therefore, may have benefited these patients by providing them with legal protection and access to marijuana as an alternative relief from their pain conditions,” the Kentucky and Emory team wrote. “The widespread public support will bring medical marijuana laws to more and more states for years to come, which may help decrease the use of prescription opioids in pain management and the adverse consequences, such as opioid use disorder and overdose.”
Those researchers also noted that “marijuana may help ease opioid withdrawal symptoms.”
“Thus, marijuana liberalization potentially reduced prescription opioid use on 2 fronts, serving as a substitute for opioid pain medications, and as a complement to opioid use disorder treatment,” the wrote. “The potential of adult-use marijuana laws to reduce the use and consequences of addictive opioids deserves consideration, especially in states that have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic.
Youth Marijuana Treatment Admissions Fell After Legalization, Study Finds
Does legalizing marijuana for adults lead to a tidal wave of teens going to treatment? Not according to a new study out of Temple University, where researchers in fact found decreases in youth admission rates for problem cannabis use in two legal states.
The findings, published this month in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, run counter to speculation from legalization opponents, law enforcement and some public health experts, who have warned that relaxing cannabis laws could lead to an explosion in cannabis use disorders among children. If that’s happening, the study found, treatment admissions data so far show no sign of it.
Examining data from publicly funded substance use treatment facilities, researchers from Temple’s geography and urban studies department, found that youth treatment admissions rates for cannabis use disorder fell sharply between 2008 and 2017, nationally as well as in Colorado and Washington State, which both passed legalization laws in 2012.
“Our results indicate that [recreational marijuana legalization] in Colorado and Washington was not associated with an increase in treatment admissions,” the study concluded. “Rather, we observe a substantial decline in admissions rates across US states, with evidence suggesting a greater decline in Colorado/Washington following RML as compared to non-RML states, though this difference was not significant.”
Co-author Jeremy Mennis, a Temple professor, told Marijuana Moment that the “national decline is pretty dramatic,” noting that on average, youth admissions rates for marijuana fell by nearly half.
“It declined more in Colorado and Washington, but the difference between them and other states was not statistically significant,” he said.
In other words, at least so far, legalization doesn’t seem to have made a particularly big impact on youth admissions rates one way or the other.
“Adolescent treatment admissions for marijuana use did not increase in Colorado and Washington following [recreational marijuana legalization].”
“The admissions rate is initially higher in Colorado/Washington at the beginning of the study period,” Mennis and co-author Gerald Stahler wrote, “but declines more rapidly following [legalization] as compared to the other states.”
As the study notes, if legalizing cannabis for adults were to increase the prevalence of cannabis use disorder among youth, “one potential consequence would be an increased need for treatment.” But that increased need hasn’t been reflected in actual admissions rates.
Still, the researchers are quick to caution that a drop in treatment admissions doesn’t necessarily mean a decrease in problem marijuana use.
“We’re not sure whether cannabis use disorder is declining or just treatment admissions are declining” for some other reason, Mennis said.
Youth cannabis consumption in the U.S. “has not substantially increased over the last 10 years,” he said, but it’s not drastically fallen, either. Yet since about 2011, treatment admissions have steadily declined.
Why the drop in admissions rates? “I don’t know why,” Mennis acknowledged. “This is speculative on my part.”
One possibility is that changing attitudes toward the potential dangers of marijuana have shifted in recent years, making individuals and their loved ones less likely to seek treatment.
“The perception that using marijuana is harmful has declined across the U.S. among youth and adults,” Mennis said, “and this may affect how people view whether their marijuana use is problematic or requires treatment.”
If fewer parents see cannabis as a harmful drug, for example, “they’re probably a lot less likely to see the use of marijuana among their kids as warranting treatment,” he said. “That’s a possibility.”
Reduced stigma around cannabis generally could also be playing a role, he said, with parents perhaps less likely to refer their kids to treatment for simply experimenting with the drug absent other problems connected to such use.
Perhaps the worst-case scenario, the paper says, is that the need for treatment still exists but somehow isn’t being met:
“If [cannabis use disorder] remained stable following [recreational marijuana legalization], or increased, as recent research indicates, the dramatic decline in adolescent treatment admissions we observe in states enacting [recreational marijuana legalization] would suggest an increase in unmet need for treatment, i.e. it may be the case that admissions rates are falling because an increasing proportion of adolescents with CUD are not entering treatment.”
“Cannabis use disorder is a thing, and I think a lot of people are resistant to the idea that it can be a thing. The question is whether cannabis use disorder is actually decreasing,” Mennis said. “If cannabis use is staying the same, then there’s a bigger and bigger gap.”
Studies on cannabis use disorder have arrived at mixed conclusions about whether it’s becoming more or less common as legalization spreads to more states. A study published last year found that, contrary to the expectations of some health experts, the prevalence of cannabis use disorder among frequent cannabis users has actually decreased in recent decades.
Cannabis use disorder “decreased significantly across all ages reporting daily/almost daily cannabis use between 2002-2016,” that study found. “Cannabis dependence prevalence decreased for adolescents and young adults and was stable only among adults ages 26+ reporting daily/almost daily cannabis use.”
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso
Federal Agency Wants Help Developing A Standard THC Dose For Marijuana Products
A top federal health agency is requesting input on a proposal to establish a standardized dose of THC in marijuana products to ensure consistency among studies into the potential therapeutic benefits and risks of cannabis.
In a notice published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) on Monday, the agency said that little is known about the impact of varying THC potency, and creating a standard unit could help resolve that issue. That said, the notice acknowledges that marijuana contains other compounds that could complicate any standardization, in addition to problems arising from differing methods of consumption.
Even so, “such a unit is critical for conducting rigorous cannabis research,” NIDA said.
“Recognizing that a perfect measure may not be attainable at the current time, NIDA still believes that a standard dose would improve measures of outcomes in relation to exposure; and thus, could inform policy and public health strategies around cannabis use,” the notice states, adding that the agency is looking into a five milligram THC dose as the standardized unit.
Request for Information (RFI): Inviting Comments on the Establishment and Implementation of a Standard Unit Dose of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for Cannabis Research https://t.co/RkSzihPpbP
— NIH Funding (@NIHFunding) March 23, 2020
NIDA Director Nora Volkow discussed the importance of establishing such a unit in commentary published in the journal Addiction last month.
Citing research that calls for a five milligram THC standard, Volkow said she agreed with the study’s conclusion despite complicating factors. Those factors include potential issues related to the effect of having cannabis products with the same THC level but different concentrations of other cannabinoids such as CBD.
Also, varying routes of administration could present problems in ensuring research consistency. It’s unclear how the effects of a five milligram THC unit would differ between marijuana products consumed via smoking, vaping, edibles or topicals.
The notice also calls for information about labeling requirements for cannabis products. But while that might aid in observational or epidemiological studies, a federal standard for labels wouldn’t be achievable as long as marijuana remains a prohibited substance. The Trump administration’s secretary of health and human services talked about this problem as it applies to warning labels last year.
The complexities in research beyond having a standardized measure of THC “hardly negate the value” of setting one, Volkow said in her commentary. “In fact, having and using such a standard is a prerequisite for comparing the effects of various cannabis products on THC bioavailability, pharmacokinetics and pharmacological effects, which is knowledge fundamental to studies pertaining to medical use of cannabis.”
“Although cannabis remains an illicit substance in the United States, the expanded legalization by states requires us to develop the knowledge base that can help states develop policies to minimize risk from cannabis exposures, such as limits on the THC content of cannabis products,” she said.
Due to the lack of standardization, she said that studies often show conflicting results when it comes to questions about how cannabis impacts brain development and mental health conditions, for example. There’s also a lack of consistency in research comparing the effects of high THC and low THC marijuana.
In the study Volkow references, the authors said they examined “experimental and ecological data, public health considerations and existing policy” to determine that five milligrams of THC should be the standard unit.
The director said in her commentary that in spite of the “multiple caveats and complexities, the use of a standard unit dose of THC in research is an important step for improving our ability to understand the effects of cannabis in the population.”
NIDA’s notice calls for e-mailed submissions from “the scientific research community and any other interested parties” by May 1.
Volkow has been vocal about the importance of streamlining and improving research into cannabis, and she’s laid partial blame for the the lack of studies on marijuana’s restrictive federal classification.
While it remains to be seen when that fundamental impediment will be resolved, the Drug Enforcement Administration did announce last week that it is proposing a rule that would enable it to expand the number of authorized cannabis manufacturers for research purposes.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.
Legalizing Marijuana Increases Housing Prices, Study Finds
So much for “there goes the neighborhood.” A new analysis suggests that states that legalize marijuana actually see a boost in housing prices, with the effect most pronounced once nearby retail outlets open for business.
Economists at the University of Oklahoma attempted to tease out the impact of adult-use cannabis legalization by examining listings on Zillow.com and tracking them against legalization in Colorado and Washington State. Their findings suggest legalization “has beneficial spillover effects at both the state and local levels,” casting doubt on the parade of horribles sometimes warned of by law enforcement and other critics.
“Concerns about the potential effect on crime rates and the difficulty in policing impaired driving have been cited as reasons to slow-walk the path to full recreational legalization,” the study’s authors write. “This research contributes to the discussion, providing evidence that recreational marijuana legalization (RML) has large positive spillover effects on the local housing market.”
Specifically, neighborhoods in Colorado and Washington saw a 7 percent price increase as marijuana retailers there opened shop, the study, which was published online this week by SSRN, found. “Considered together, this research suggests that there are second order benefits associated with marijuana legalization that policy makers and voters should be aware of when deciding the drug’s legal status.”
“Once recreational marijuana becomes available to buy easily at a dispensary and tax revenue is generated, there is significant home price appreciation.”
It’s not the first time researchers have looked into the effects of legalization on nearby home values. In 2018, researchers at Colorado State University found that home prices within a half mile of a retail cannabis store went up by 7.7 percent. A 2017 study, “Contact High: The External Effects of Retail Marijuana Establishments on House Prices,” found an 8 percent increase in the value single family residences that were “close to a retail conversion,” or store opening, compared to homes that were farther away. A 2016 analysis had similar findings, concluding that “legalization leads to an average 6% increase in housing values, indicating that the capitalized benefits outweigh the costs.”
The new study takes the past findings and pulls them into sharper focus. It concludes that legalization tends to impact the values of more-expensive homes differently than less-expensive ones, though homes of all price levels saw increases. The study also identifies variables that may work to lift residential property values in states that legalize, such as increased tax revenue to fund schools.
“Marijuana’s liberalization provides a novel source of tax revenue which states have used to fund capital expenditures, especially in education and it acts as an amenity via the dispensaries that distribute it,” the paper says. “The creation of a new legal market has direct implications for the local economy, as it establishes new dispensary jobs and reduces arrest rates. All of these factors have well-established impacts on housing markets.”
One of the analyses performed by the researchers found that prices among more expensive homes increased immediately following a successful ballot drive to legalize marijuana. Meanwhile, homes in less-expensive areas didn’t see much of a price increase until cannabis stores actually began to open.
As they describe it, the economists found “positive effects in the top of the distribution following the success of the ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana, but no effect in the lower half.”
“The greatest impact occurs once it becomes legal to sell marijuana, with large positive effects across the price distribution, especially in the middle three deciles,” they write. “Heterogeneous responses to a policy shock have not been well-researched in the housing literature, making the findings here one of our major contributions.”
Legalization itself led to “positive effects upwards of ten percent in the top half of the price distribution,” the study says, “and between five and fifteen percent across the distribution after the state enacts the ballot initiative and the first legal sales take place.”
Why the lopsided effect? The economists say a number of mechanisms could be at work, with a big one being access to liquidity among the rich: “The wealthiest households can more rapidly move to (legal) states if they believe there to be some positive spillovers from legalization.”
The researchers attempted to address some confounding variables in their analysis, such as by assessing house prices by square foot rather than taking each property as a whole. “Geographic heterogeneity in our sample suggests that simply using house price as the dependent variable could bias the results since treatment homes are in high-price states,” the authors write. “By using house price per square foot as the dependent variable, we can ensure that this potential source of bias is accounted for.”
They also took particular note of when stores actually opened. “If the primary mechanism in our cross-state models is the economic development effect,” the study says, “then it is possible that the impact is only felt once the first dispensaries open and a large volume of marijuana sales take place, thereby generating tax revenue.”
“[W]hen a dispensary opens nearby, homes closest to it appreciate in price the most. This is consistent with our interpretation that new dispensaries act as amenities in the local housing market.”
One big question the researchers still can’t answer: Will it last? “Without the benefit of foresight,” they write, “our research is not able to determine whether the positive effect will persist.”
Other big unknowns remain, such as whether the effect was due to more people immigrating to the state after legalization, which would mean states that legalize later could see a diminished effect.
But for now, the effect is robust. And from what the researchers can tell, people don’t just seem to want the benefits of legal marijuana. They also want marijuana stores themselves to be near their homes. When the economists modeled home prices by distance to the nearest outlet, the data “show price appreciations for homes as the distance to the nearest dispensary decreases.”
“This demonstrates that [it is] not simply the benefits of increased tax revenue, but also the existence of the dispensaries themselves, that is driving the price increases,” the researchers found. “The dispensaries act as commercial amenities that the public puts a premium on being nearby.”