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Legal Medical Marijuana Tied To Lower Opioid Use, Another Study Finds

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Adding to the ever-growing body of research that suggests legal access to marijuana may help mitigate the opioid crisis, a new study found that states with medical cannabis laws have seen a drop in opioid prescriptions for people aged 55 and younger.

Researchers from the University of Texas investigated prescription opioid use among people with private insurance (as opposed to those on publicly funded Medicare or Medicaid), and compared those rates in states with and without medical marijuana.

“When results were examined within each individual age cohort, opioid prescription rate varied depending on the stringency of state cannabis laws,” the study states. “In particular, in states which implemented medical cannabis use laws (but not other categories of cannabis liberalization laws), lower rates of opioid prescription were seen in the younger age cohorts (18–25, 26–35, 36–45 and 46–54 years).”

The findings were published last week in the journal Preventive Medicine.

Building on previous studies—including one that found opioid-related overdose deaths fell in states with legal marijuana dispensaries—the researchers used information from the database of one of the largest private health insurance providers in the country. This was important, the study’s authors write, because this subset of people “may exhibit different behaviors from Medicare and Medicaid subpopulations with regards to cannabis use.”

Past research has shown states with medical marijuana laws have issued fewer opioid prescriptions to people with government-funded health coverage.

The study population spanned more than four million individuals, which researchers broke down by age group in their analysis.

In 2016, when the research was being conducted, five states had fully legalized marijuana, 21 states had approved only medical cannabis and four other states had simply decriminalized possession. At the time, 1,770,081 people were enrolled in private insurance in states with legal medical marijuana access.

According to the study’s results, the states with the lowest prescription rates were those that had approved access to medical marijuana. When the results were examined by age group, researchers found that these lower rates were only seen in people ages 18 to 54.

“Overall, age-stratified adjusted analysis showed lowest rate of opioid prescription in states that allowed for medical cannabis use.”

While the authors admit there may be “a public health benefit associated with medical cannabis laws,” they point out this decrease in opioid prescriptions may also have to do with the fact that many states have implemented monitoring programs and other legislation designed to restrict access to opioids.

But, as the study states, “These findings suggest a difference between the privately insured versus Medicaid or Medicare insured populations, especially those who are older adults. Research has shown that Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries generally have greater disability than those with commercial insurance, perhaps because a proportion of beneficiaries qualify for Medicare coverage based on a disability.” As a result, it’s possible that more patients with public insurance have been prescribed opioids compared to the privately insured.

Also, as the authors note, it’s not surprising that older people have more prescriptions—that just comes with age. They do wonder, however, if “these patients are more likely to use cannabis as an adjunct therapeutic agent for pain control.”

“Baby Boomers, who are now in their mid- 50s and 60s, represent demographic cohort who experienced illicit drug use, including cannabis, as a societal norm, resulting from societal pressures and stresses in their youth,” the study states. “While younger adults appear to use cannabis with greater frequency than older adults (aged 50 and above), studies reveal that cannabis use among older adults may be increasing.”

In fact, one recent study found that 3 percent of adults 65 and older reported using cannabis in the past year. That’s seven times the rate of Baby Boomers who reported use a decade ago.

Legal Medical Marijuana Associated With Lower Opioid Use Rates, Another Study Finds

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.

Kimberly Lawson is a former altweekly newspaper editor turned freelance writer based in Georgia. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, O magazine, Broadly, Rewire.News, The Week and more.

Science & Health

Bees Like Big Hemp And They Cannot Lie, Study Shows

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Some pollinators tend to flock to hemp, but according to a recent study, the taller the trees, the more plentiful the bees.

Researchers at Cornell University collected bees at 11 hemp farms in the Finger Lakes region of central New York in the summer of 2018 to identify which ones are attracted to hemp and “to analyze the effects of landscape composition” when they visit the crop.

In the study, published in the journal Environmental Entomology last week, the team found that plant height is “strongly correlated” with bee abundance and that hemp plants at least two meters tall attract “nearly 17 times the number of [bee] visits compared to short plants.”

Both the sheer number and species of bees found visiting hemp “increased with plant height.”

Additionally, they found that the cash crop can support 16 different bee varieties in the northeastern United States.

Of the 355 individual bees captured by “repeated sweep net collections,” 60 percent were Apis mellifera, or western honey bees, while 30 percent were Bombus impatiens, the most commonly encountered bumblebee in eastern North America, which “is intensively relied upon” for pollination, the authors note.

“As cultivation of hemp increases, growers, land managers, and policy makers should consider its value in supporting bee communities and take its attractiveness to bees into account when developing pest management strategies,” they wrote.

“Plant height…was strongly correlated with bee species richness and abundance for hemp plots with taller varieties attracting a broader diversity of bee species.”

A similar study published earlier this year in Colorado concluded that bees are uniquely attracted to hemp, a finding that may inform more sustainable agricultural practices.

Although hemp does not have the characteristic vivid colors, enticing aromas and other alluring features that tempt insects and other pollinators, it nevertheless produces large amounts of pollen at a time of the year when there’s typically a shortage—meaning hemp can be an important and plentiful source of food and nectar for bees when they need it.

The authors noted that bee populations—wild and domesticated alike—have taken a hit in recent years due to “large scale, intensified agriculture.” According to the study, “landscape simplification,” or the replacement of native plants with cash crops, “negatively impacted” the total number of bees near hemp, but did not affect the number of species found. This research suggests that hemp, especially tall plants, could be crucial to stemming declining bee populations.

New York has taken significant steps to encourage the cultivation of hemp. In 2015, the Empire State launched a hemp agricultural research pilot program. Two years later, the state lifted limits on the number of sites authorized for hemp growth and research and expanded the program to include businesses and farmers.

Congress paved the way for a massive expansion of hemp production in 2018 after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) pushed to add a provision legalizing hemp into the 2018 Farm Bill, helping to make his home state of Kentucky a significant hemp producer.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has also been a champion of the hemp industry, and he’s taken steps to ensure that his state reaps the benefits of the crop’s legalization. After the Farm Bill was enacted, Schumer celebrated an announcement from a major cannabis company that said it would be investing millions into a hemp park in New York.

And after that company, Canopy Growth Corp., experienced a staffing shakeup, he called executives directly to confirm that plans were still on to launch the site.

People Are Skipping Sleep Aids In Favor of Marijuana, Study Reports

Photo courtesy of Brendan Cleak.

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Science & Health

People Are Skipping Sleep Aids In Favor of Marijuana, Study Reports

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The scientific community is still unclear on whether or not marijuana can actually help treat sleep disturbances such as insomnia. A new study, however, found that fewer people purchase over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medications when they have legal access to cannabis.

“Our results show that the market share growth for sleep aids shrank with the entry of recreational cannabis dispensaries by more than 200% relative to the mean market share growth in our sample, and the strength of the association increased with each subsequent dispensary,” the paper, published in the December edition of Complementary Therapies in Medicine, concludes. “In particular, cannabis appears to compete favorably with OTC sleep aids, especially those containing diphenhydramine and doxylamine, which constitute 87.4% of the market for OTC sleep aids.”

“Recreational cannabis dispensaries greatly increase the number of individuals able to legally treat sleep disorders using cannabis, particularly those with mild to moderate sleep disorders.”

Researchers at the University of New Mexico and California State Polytechnic University used retail scanner data collected by the Nielsen Company to help them understand how access to recreational marijuana affected the sales of OTC sleep medications purchased at local stores in Colorado.

In their analysis, they studied the market shares of overall sleep aids—including supplements such as melatonin and pharmaceuticals such as diphenhydramine—at 587 stores. They also used monthly data from the Colorado Department of Revenue to compare the number of recreational dispensaries in each county as well as local cannabis retail sales figures.

“The negative association between cannabis access and sleep aid sales suggests a consumer preference for cannabis.”

It became legal for Colorado residents to purchase cannabis for adult use on January 1, 2014, and the study period covered December 2013 through December 2014.

According to the results, the market share for sleep aids was neither rising nor declining prior to a dispensary opening in the same county. After one did, however, the market share declined with each month of its existence. A regression model showed that sleep aid market share growth decreased by 236 percent after a dispensary entered the market, and this negative association increased as the number of dispensaries grew.

“The magnitude of the market share decline increases as more dispensaries enter a county and with higher county-level cannabis sales.”

“For the first time, we show a statistically significant negative association between recreational access to cannabis and OTC sleep aid sales, suggesting that at least some recreational purchasers are using cannabis for therapeutic rather than recreational purposes,” the study’s authors write.

“Additionally, despite a lack of direct clinical evidence on the effectiveness of self-managed cannabis as a sleep aid, our results indicate that enough individuals are switching from OTC sleep aids to recreational cannabis that we can identify a statistically significant reduction in the market share growth of OTC sleep aids in conjunction with access to recreational cannabis using a statistically conservative county-month-level treatment variable and a quasi-experimental research design,” the paper concluded.

“Our results are consistent with evidence that legal access to medical cannabis is associated with reductions in Scheduled II-V prescription medications (e.g., opioids and sedatives), many of which may be used in part as sleep aids,” the authors wrote.

“These findings support survey evidence that many individuals use cannabis to treat insomnia, although sleep disturbances are not a specific qualifying condition under any U.S. state-level medical cannabis law.”

Study author Sarah Stith, an applied microeconomist at the University of New Mexico, explained in a statement: “From a public health perspective, the possible widespread use of cannabis for less severe medical conditions both highlights its therapeutic potential and raises concerns regarding the risk-benefit tradeoffs of substituting a substance associated with abuse and dependence for relatively ineffective OTC medications with typically low levels of abuse potential.”

“From an economic or business perspective, regardless of underlying mechanism, our documentation of changing purchase behaviors has implications for multimillion-dollar US markets with OTC sleep aids likely just one example,” she said. “It is important for the medical community to recognize that the lack of medical guidance does not necessarily lead to a lack of medical use. Dispensaries and online forums are stepping up to fill the information vacuum as individuals are forced to take treatment into their own hands, with statistically evident effects on treatment choices.”

A ‘Significant’ Number Of Patients Stopped Taking Benzodiazepines After Starting Medical Marijuana

Photo by Wesley Gibbs on Unsplash 

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Scientist Talks Benefits Of Psychedelics At Federal Health Agency Event

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A federal health agency hosted a leading psychedelics researcher on Tuesday for an event focused on the therapeutic potential of controlled substances such as psilocybin and DMT.

Roland Griffiths, who has spent decades studying various entheogenic plants and fungi, described the existing scientific literature and future research objectives during a speech organized by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The event was part of NIMH’s “Innovation Speaker” series.

The discussion, titled “Psilocybin: History, Neuropharmacology, and Implications for Therapeutics,” went over studies on the impact of psychedelics on mental health conditions such as depression and substance misuse, the subjective experience of individuals who’ve used such substances for recreational or spiritual purposes and the need for additional research into potential medical applications for psychedelics.

For example, Griffiths presented a slide on the “phenomenological dimensions of mystical experience” elicited from psychedelics. People reported a greater sense of unity, sacredness, “universal love” and “transcendence of time and space,” among other feelings.

Via NIMH.

He also explained how research has shown that the medically supervised administration of moderate to high doses of psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms, “can produce substantial and enduring decreases in depressive mood.”

Via NIMH.

When he was later asked about the risks of psilocybin, Griffiths said the compound is “pretty benign physiologically” and that relatively rare side effects such as increased blood pressure and nausea are often secondary effects attributable to anxiety.

Throughout the presentation, the researcher, who heads Johns Hopkins University’s newly launched Center for Psychedelic Research, stressed the need for further studies, stating that if there’s “opportunity to do any level of analysis” on psychedelics, it should be pursued.

He also offered a preview of one area of focus his research center will be exploring: microdosing. While much of the existing research has focused on the impacts of full doses of psychedelics, he said his team will be exploring how taking smaller doses on a more regular basis can affect mental health and wellbeing.

In his final slide, Griffiths talked about other areas of research that should be investigated. That includes answering questions about how factors such as genetics and personality “affect the likelihood” of having positive responses to psychedelics, what kind of “structural and functional changes in the brain can account for the acute and enduring effects of such experiences,” what behavioral mechanisms are behind those changes and what therapeutic applications can be developed based on the data.

Via NIMH.

While federal agencies have largely avoided broad drug policy reform issues, there seems to be growing willingness to entertain conversations about psychedelics, as a decriminalization movement spreads nationwide.

For example, the heads of the Food and Drug Administration and NIH wrote a letter to a senator in June where they described the status of research into psychedelics such as psilocybin, LSD and ibogaine, which they said present an “opportunity to provide treatment to patients while expanding psychotherapy treatment options.”

Top Drug Treatment Providers Push UK Government To Consider Decriminalization

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.

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