Cannabis Access Laws Associated with Reduction in Opioid Prescriptions

Nashville, TN: The enactment of statewide cannabis access laws is associated with a reduction in opioid prescriptions, according to data published in the Journal of Health Economics.

A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the University of Alabama School of Law analyzed "a dataset of over 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions, which represent approximately 90 percent of all prescription opioids filled by outpatient pharmacies over the time period" of 2011 to 2018.

They reported that cannabis access laws were associated with significantly lower rates of opioid prescriptions and NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) prescriptions.

"In general, we find evidence that both RCLs [recreational cannabis laws] and MCLs [medical cannabis laws] decrease opioid prescribing," authors reported. "Thus, the evidence presented here suggests that cannabis access laws could be a useful tool in combatting the prescription opioid epidemic. While our data do not allow us to test this potential mechanism explicitly, our results are consistent with a substitution of cannabis for prescription opioids in the treatment of pain."

They concluded, "The evidence reported here presents the most accurate picture of the effect of cannabis access laws on prescription opioid use to date and can therefore inform the ongoing state and national debates over the legality of cannabis as well as other policy options to combat the opioid epidemic. … While the results here do not suggest that cannabis access laws are the only tool to address prescription opioid use, they do suggest that cannabis access laws could play a meaningful role in addressing the opioid epidemic."

The findings are consistent with those of other studies finding an association between legal cannabis access and declines in the use of opioids, sleep aids, benzodiazepines, and other controlled substances.

Full text of the study, "The impact of cannabis access laws on opioid prescribing," appears in the Journal of Health Economics. Additional information regarding the relationship between cannabis and opioids appears in the NORML fact-sheet.