Ousting Opioids

Marijuana helps ween the rest of the country off opioids. Why not Arizona?

Recreational marijuana could help lead to a decrease in opioid-related deaths, according to a study dropped by the American Journal of Public Health last week.

The study found that opioid-related deaths in Colorado dropped by 6 percent after the state legalized recreational marijuana.

But before we get to excited about a potentially radical cure for opioid addictions, the authors do state that the results are preliminary and only based on two years of data after Colorado passed recreational marijuana laws in 2014.

Still, the study supports what many already expect: Marijuana provides a viable alternative to many of the conditions treated by opioids, from chronic pain to addiction therapy.

It may seem ironic to treat addiction with marijuana since, as much as we'd like to ignore it, marijuana has addictive qualities, but in this case it's not nearly as bad as opioid alternatives.

The study is one of the first of its kind, though several studies have looked at the correlation between medical marijuana and opioid-related deaths.

A 2014 study found that states with medical marijuana have an average 25 percent fewer deaths from opioids compared to states without medical marijuana. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only looked at states that enacted medical marijuana laws between 1999 and 2010, excluding Arizona.

Unfortunately, that trend doesn't hold true for Arizona. In fact, opioid overdoses began to increase in Arizona in 2013 following medical marijuana legalization, and have continued to rise ever since, according to a 2016 report from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Deaths from prescription opioids remained fairly stagnant between 2012 and 2014, increasing by about 3 percent, but have risen nearly 27 percent since. However, that's still a smaller increase than total opioid deaths, which rose almost 39 percent between 2014 and 2016.

Part of the problem may be that regular doctors aren't allowed to prescribe marijuana, and perhaps many of them are reluctant to recommend it, leaving the decision between marijuana and opioids up to the patient.

Four out of five heroin addicts have a history of prescription opioid use, ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ said in a July interview with Capitol Media Services. She too believes at least some of the issue begins with doctors.

She said doctors have long been told that opioid medication isn't addictive and can be used to treat pain.

That's where problems with medical practices such as those "allegedly" perpetrated by Insys Therapeutics come in to play. While Insys is part of a program tracking deaths due to prescription opioid abuse (which they insist is startling low), it's the exposure that is the problem.

If doctors are incentivized to prescribe opioids, more people can get addicted, which leads to heroin use and more overdoses.

Still, the number of deaths from prescription opioids is far greater in Arizona—482 last year compared to 308 heroin-related deaths.

The state has taken steps to reduce opioid abuse, such as with Gov. Doug Ducey's order last October, limiting first-time opioid prescription to a week's supply and allowing pharmacies to pass out naloxone, a treatment for opioid overdoses.

Derailing the negative stigma against marijuana, especially among doctors, should be a primary tool to decreasing instances of opioid exposure among medical patients. The scare tactics used by opponents have a real effect on the lives of patients in this case, and they're not helping.

Certainly there are dangers associated with marijuana use, and doctors may be uniquely aware of those dangers, but at least death isn't one of them.

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