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Studies suggest legalizing marijuana could help opioid epidemic

The United States is struggling with the world's worst opioid epidemic, but two new research studies state legalizing marijuana could help Americans facing these challenges.

The studies were published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, comparing opioid prescription patterns in states that allow medical marijuana and those that do not.

One study examined opioid prescriptions given out between 2010 and 2015 by Medicare Part D. The other study focused on opioid prescriptions between 2011 and 2016 given out by Medicaid.

According to the studies, researchers discovered states that allow medical cannabis have 2.21 million fewer daily doses of opioids under Medicare Part D than the states without medical cannabis laws. Under Medicaid, the number of opioid decreased by 5.88 % in states that have legalized medical cannabis.

“This study adds one more brick in the wall in the argument that cannabis clearly has medical applications,” said David Bradford, professor of public administration and policy at the University of Georgia and a lead author of the Medicare study.

“And for pain patients in particular, our work adds to the argument that cannabis can be effective.”

To gauge if medical marijuana could have a positive effect and be a safer alternative to opioids, the two teams of researchers compared states with laws that allowed medical cannabis and states that legalized it during the studies to see if opioid prescriptions dropped.

Both teams found states that enacted medical cannabis laws had significant drops in prescription opioids. The researchers found states like Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington that made the switch from legal medical use to legal recreational use saw a further decrease in opioid prescriptions, according to Hefei Wen, assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Kentucky and a lead author on the Medicaid study.

This is not the first time researchers have found a link between legalizing marijuana and a decrease in opioid use.

“There is a growing body of scientific literature suggesting that legal access to marijuana can reduce the use of opioids as well as opioid-related overdose deaths,” said Melissa Moore, New York deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “In states with medical marijuana laws, we have already seen decreased admissions for opioid-related treatment and dramatically reduced rates of opioid overdoses.”

The two studies focused on patients in Medicaid and Medicare Part D, so their findings may not apply to all of the U.S population.

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