New Study Shows Link Between Medical Marijuana and Reduced Opioid Use

DES MOINES, Iowa -- A newly released study says it's found a link between states which have legalized medical marijuana and a reduction in opioid use.

The University of Georgia study was published on Monday. It looks at the number of opioid prescriptions filled for Medicare patients from 2010 to 2015 in states which legalized medical marijuana.

The team who conducted the study say their results are substantial. According to the study, prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.7 million daily doses per year when medical marijuana dispensaries opened; that is almost a 15% reduction.

With Iowa preparing to venture into medical marijuana, do experts in the state believe it could curtail opioid use?

“I think the research we've seen to date begs for more research” said Dale Woolery, Director of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy.

Woolery says while the findings from this study are positive, he advises caution.

“What I've read basically are conflicting studies, results that are inconclusive according to the study's authors. Some suggesting that medical marijuana may assist in reducing opioid use or misuse or overdoses; and other studies suggesting that marijuana use may actually increase the use of opioids” said Woolery.

Woolery hopes as medical marijuana becomes more widely used, more studies are conducted.

“My hope is given the opioid epidemic and the interest there, that we'll have either the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the FDA, the DEA, private entrepreneurs, will be doing more research” said Woolery.

Dr. Richard Deming is the medical director of the Mercy Cancer Center. He says studies like this one shows medical marijuana has potential in pain reduction.

“That leads to the suggestion that perhaps, for some types of pain, medical marijuana may be sufficient; and that might be a tool to reduce the use of opioids” said Dr. Deming.

Deming, however, also says in his experience medical marijuana hasn't been particularly effective for cancer pain. The study, he says, is still something to pay attention to.

“[It] certainly is statistically significant, and we'll have to see whether medical marijuana plays a role in pain reduction and as an alternative to opioids” said Dr. Deming.

Currently marijuana is a schedule one drug, meaning it's more difficult to be approved for medical research and funding, but not impossible.  Recently there have been efforts to get the drug reclassified.  For example, it's easier to research the medical benefits of cocaine, a schedule two drug.