Do Medical Marijuana Laws Reduce Addictions and Deaths Related to Pain Killers?

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David Powell, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, Mireille Jacobson

NBER Working Paper No. 21345
Issued in July 2015
NBER Program(s):   HC   HE

Many medical marijuana patients report using marijuana to alleviate chronic pain from musculoskeletal problems and other sources. If marijuana is used as a substitute for powerful and addictive pain relievers in medical marijuana states, a potential overlooked positive impact of medical marijuana laws may be a reduction in harms associated with opioid pain relievers, a far more addictive and potentially deadly substance. To assess this issue, we study the impact of medical marijuana laws on problematic opioid use. We use two measures of problematic use: treatment admissions for opioid pain reliever addiction from the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) and state-level opioid overdose deaths in the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). Using both standard differences-in-differences models as well as synthetic control models, we find that states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not. We find no impact of medical marijuana laws more broadly; the mitigating effect of medical marijuana laws is specific to states that permit dispensaries. We evaluate potential mechanisms. Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers.

About Anthony Taylor

Anthony Taylor is a long time activist in the marijuana reform movement. He was responsible for changes to the initiative process and has been a persistent voice in Salem for marijuana reform. His recent efforts led to the addition of PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions for the use of medical marijuana as well as sentencing reform including the creation of misdemeanor possession of marijuana and hashish, a long overdue change in Oregon statute.