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A 2014 study by Marcus Bachhuber and others has sparked a movement from marijuana legalization support groups, stating that marijuana could solve opioid addiction. Legalization advocates from a marijuana company named Weedmaps have purchased billboards in multiple states with the statement “states that legalized marijuana had 25% fewer opioid-related deaths”, citing the 2014 study as their source. But is this statement really true?
Arizona passed a medical marijuana law that went into effect in 2011. Were this statement true, the amount of opioid overdoses would have fallen drastically since 2011, correct? Before the law went into effect in Arizona, the opioid overdose rate was falling in the state. However, since the law went into effect, between 2012 and 2016, opioid deaths in the state increased by almost 75%. So why are legalization advocates using 2014 study to support their claims when the data simply isn’t there?
In fact, Bachhuber’s 2014 study never claimed that marijuana caused a decreased in opioid deaths. Bachhuber found, instead, that marijuana legalization and a drop in opioid deaths are correlated, and correlation does not equal causation, a fact that was noted in the original study. Other researchers have taken a closer look at the correlation to see if they can figure out what is causing the drop in opioid deaths. A 2015 Rand Corporation study looked at Bachhuber’s calculations more closely, adjusting for race and unemployment rates. The Rand Corporation found that middle-aged, white men with no college degrees are among the hardest hit by the opioid crisis and are dying in unexpectedly high numbers. These men often live in states without medical marijuana and are often out of work and/or under-employed. In contrast, the half of the country with the highest rates of college grads contains 3/4 of the states that have legalized medical marijuana. Thus, the Rand Corporation found that medical marijuana states have fewer opioid overdoses not because their residents have access to marijuana, but because there are fewer non-college educated white men in the state.
Additionally, other research has been published in recent years that finds that teen marijuana users are twice as likely to progress to opioid abuse. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the 20 states with the highest rates of teen marijuana use all have medical marijuana laws.