The opioid overdose crisis is non-arguably one of the most substantial public health challenges in North America. With shocking statistics revealing the number of lives lost in the United States and Canada combined in 2017 due to opioid abuse, it is unsettling to assert that the number of deaths has steadily increased from year to year.
Now, some Canadian and US policymakers, alongside drug users, health professionals, and cannabis activists are signifying that cannabis may be an effective means for alleviating the opioid overdose crisis. This subject has been the growing focus of a number of articles published in academic journals as will be outlined in this article.
In the light of the subsequent debate surrounding the validity of the cannabis-opioid connection and relative means of ‘healing’ for hardcore drug addicts, we wanted to discover and compile as much emerging research for cannabis use as a harm reduction strategy in Canada that we could find. Let’s review below.
Research on Opioid Prescriptions Declining in Canada since Marijuana Legalization
According to data published in the journal Applied Health Economics and Health Policy, the presentation of marijuana legalization in Canada led to a noticeable decline in the volume of opioids prescribed to patients enrolled in health care plans. This research was done with the precise purpose of showing how we may attest to Opioid prescriptions declining in Canada since marijuana legalization.
A team of investigators from the University of Toronto likewise assessed the volume of opioids prescribed along with the amount of money spent in the months preceding and subsequent to the legalization of adult-use marijuana sales. Researchers succeeded to obtain data for the vast majority of opioids prescribed in Canada during the study period of 2016 to 2019.
Consistent with the findings of other, separate ecological studies, researchers determined that the legalization of cannabis in Canada coincided with a marked drop in opioid volumes prescribed in the same country. But there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye at first. Let’s dig some more.
More Research to Back-up the Opioid-Cannabis Claim
To add onto what is said above regarding research by Applied Health Economics and Health Policy, we must further investigate their findings that legalizing cannabis has led to a noticeable decline in the volume of opioids prescribed in Canada during 2016-2019.
The study’s findings similarly support the theory that easier access to cannabis for pain may reduce opioid use overall. Working with data of national prescription claims from patients during the indicated time-frame, the study manages to accurately track opioid prescribing expenditures before and after cannabis legalization.
These team of researchers made sure to account for a substantive number of opioids. The list included morphine, codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, meperidine, oxycodone and tramadol. Even the non-opioids gabapentin and pregabalin were analyzed separately from the opioids. All opioid volumes were converted to a strong morphine equivalent dose.
What this particular study found beyond their own doubt, is that following legalization, the total monthly opioid spending by the people of the public decreased from $267,000 per month to $95,000. The average dose also declined from 22.3 milligrams to 4.1 mg.
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Health Economics found that increasing access to low-THC, high-CBD products in Italy led to significant decreases in the number of dispensed anxiolytics, sedatives and antipsychotics.
Opioid Prescriptions Before and After Marijuana Legalization
The study under the spotlight specifically compared how many opioids were prescribed in Canada before and after legalization – in addition to money spent on opioids. Total monthly opioid spending was revealed to have been reduced to a greater extent after legalization, with $267,000 vs. $95,000 per month.
With stats like these, it should be a no-brainer, right? And furthermore, the findings were similar for private drug plans. However, the absolute drop in opioid use was even more pronounced in this case – with the usage of drugs like gabapentin and pregabalin also in decline.
Consistent with the findings of other ecological studies, researchers determined, ‘The legalization of cannabis coincided with a marked drop in opioid volumes prescribed in Canada.’” the official report on the study’s findings concluded.
Studies Reveal Patients Prefer Cannabis to Opioids
In another, separate study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, patients with chronic pain and mental-health conditions showed to prefer taking cannabis to prescribed opioid medication.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria traced more than 250 patients during this test.
These patients were being treated for conditions such as chronic pain, mental health and gastrointestinal issues. They were prescribed medical cannabis in addition to more other traditional drugs, and 63 per cent reported using cannabis instead of opioids, sedatives and anti-depressants.
Furthermore, in analyzing a dataset of over 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions between 2011 and 2018, we find that recreational and medical cannabis access laws reduce the number of morphine milligram equivalents prescribed each year by 11.8 and 4.2 percent, respectively
In Other Words; What’s the Last Word?
In the case for Opioid prescriptions declining in Canada since marijuana legalization – even in the light of all of the above research and relatively grounded arguments – there is no guaranteed connection.
Yet, the contention seems to be best summarized as follows: It is safe to assume that as recreational cannabis becomes more accepted for pain management, opiate prescriptions aren’t quite as in demand as they used to be.
While recent research has in fact shown that relaxed cannabis laws indeed reduce the use of prescription opioids, the effect of these laws on opioid use is not well understood, yet. This is an important dimension – or obstacle – for all dimensions of consumption and for the general United States population.
These laws also reduce the total supply of opioids prescribed, alongside the total number of patients receiving opioids. It also affects the probability of a provider prescribing any opioids of any offsetting effects.
Additionally, we consistently conclude that cannabis access laws have different effects across types of providers, physician specialties, and payers.