Reduction in Opioid-Related Deaths in States with Legalized Marijuana

As Utah continues to hold the leash tight on legalizing marijuana, other states who have sanctioned this “gate-way” drug are reporting a reduction in opioid-related deaths and overall opioid use.

Relief from chronic pain

Photo by: Jorge Gonzalez

Many addicts that abuse opioids, whether through pill form or through substances such as heroin start off with a prescription written out by a caring medical practitioner. These prescriptions are often given to relieve chronic pain as a result of injuries or medical conditions. The National Institutes of Health states: “more than 25 million Americans suffer from daily chronic pain.” NIH adds that “[m]ore than 2 million Americans have OUD [opioid use disorder]. Millions more misuse opioids, taking opioid medications longer or in higher doses than prescribed.” What begins as a way to manage pain or other ailments however can quickly spiral into a lifelong dependency on opioids that is often dangerously supported using street drugs or illegally acquired pills when prescriptions are no longer being filled.

Safer alternative to pain pills

In a country that lost over 20,000 citizens to opioid related deaths in 2016 according to NIH, there has to be safer alternatives to help individuals manage chronic pain and other debilitating conditions. According to an article published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, there has been a notable decrease in opioid-related deaths in Colorado consequent of the legalization of recreational cannabis. The report which uses the state of Colorado to draw its association said: “Colorado’s legalization of recreational cannabis sales and use resulted in a 0.7 deaths per month . . . reduction in opioid-related deaths. This reduction represents a reversal of the upward trend in opioid-related deaths in Colorado.”

Decreasing opioid dependency

Photo by: Mark

While the US National Library of Medicine plans on analyzing data from other states, other research groups have already done so in regards to overall opioid use in marijuana-friendly states. These reports have all shown that in states where marijuana is legal for recreational or at least medicinal use, there has been a definite decrease in opioid abuse. One of the studies showed a 4% decrease in opioids beings prescribed for those covered under federal and state health insurance programs in states that had lenient marijuana laws. This percentage decrease did not include those covered under private insurance. When patients seek help from doctors to manage chronic pain and other conditions, doctors in marijuana-friendly states now have another alternative to offer their patients. Doctors can either write patients a prescription for dangerously addicting opioids or direct their patients to the nearest marijuana dispensary. Many medical practitioners whose life’s goals are to help people are now choosing marijuana as a safer alternative to prescription opioids when helping their patients with their ailments.

Utah, bringing up the rear

The Utah Department of Health stated: “From 2013 to 2015, Utah ranked 7th highest in the nation for drug overdose deaths.” They also noted that “in 2015, 24 individuals (residents and non-residents) died every month from a prescription opioid overdose in Utah.” In a state that is plagued by the opioid epidemic, why has Utah been dragging their feet with marijuana laws? While some may see the problem with allowing the plant to be used recreationally, there is minimal logic to support why medical use of marijuana has not yet been openly approved in Utah. Fortunately, there are small steps being made with allowing medical marijuana use in Utah. The Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative was passed by the senate earlier this year and will be on the ballot in November. If enough Utah residents vote “yes” on the initiative, patients with a qualifying illness or chronic pain can be issued a medical cannabis card, allowing them to obtain medical marijuana to manage their illnesses instead of using harmful opioids. Hopefully then will Utah finally be able to see a reduction in opioid-related deaths among its residents.

Is Using Marijuana For Pain Relief a Safer Alternative Than Opioids?

When someone is battling chronic or acute pain, they are often prescribed addictive opioids when using marijuana for pain relief may be a safer alternative.

Opioid epidemic

6698540291_20f5b96c81_zAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose” and unfortunately, “opioid-involved deaths continue to increase in the United States.” The CDC also stated that “deaths from prescription opioids-drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone-have more than quadrupled since 1999”. This may be due to the fact that “since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled [even though] there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report.“ So why do doctors continue to mass prescribe dangerously addictive and obviously overused opioids to help their patients manage pain?

Marijuana for pain relief

Opioids continue to be used to handle pain because there isn’t much out there that can replace them….legally. Medical marijuana has been tested repeatedly and consistently proves to be beneficial in reducing discomfort for those individuals who struggle with chronic pain. It is also being studied for use in acute pain episodes with positive results. Even though using marijuana for pain relief has been proven to be a successful alternative option that is natural and far safer than opioids, not all U.S. citizens have access to it since several states still consider marijuana an illegal substance. Some states such as Utah go as far to label it a schedule I drug along with methamphetamine and cocaine.

Marijuana use around the nation

Photo by: Satish Krishnamurthy

Photo by: Satish Krishnamurthy

Over the last several years, 26 states as well as Washington D.C. have come to the realization that marijuana isn’t as dangerous as once believed and has proven qualities in fighting chronic and acute pain. Those 26 states and Washington D.C. have all legalized marijuana for medical use. Seven of those states along with D.C. also allow their residents to use marijuana recreationally, just as all states do with alcohol. When will the other states including Utah get on board and legalize marijuana at least for medical use?

Medical marijuana in Utah

There were two bills regarding medical marijuana that Utah lawmakers were working on but unfortunately, only one bill passed and it doesn’t do anything to help those struggling with pain. House Bill 130 that allows medical marijuana to be researched passed the Utah State Legislature, but marijuana has already been researched for medical use; it is time to give pain sufferers in Utah another option besides prescription opioids. Some Utah residents who are frustrated with Utah lawmakers dragging their feet allowing marijuana for pain relief end up taking matters into their own hands. They may cross state lines to take advantage of neighboring states’ leniency towards marijuana only to be busted once they return to Utah with marijuana in their possession or simply in their system. Their attempt to find something else besides opioids to manage pain may land them in jail.

Criminal penalties

Photo by: Victor

Photo by: Victor

Utah law currently prohibits the possession of marijuana and Utah residents are not even allowed to have it in their system when driving. Marijuana metabolites can stay in the system for up to four weeks which makes it impossible for residents to find relief in other states before driving home to Utah. Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana may result in a fine up to $1,000 and the individual charged being incarcerated for up to 6 months.These same charges apply to driving with a measurable amount of marijuana or metabolite of marijuana in the person’s body. Possession of greater quantities or repeat offense may result in greater charges. This may seem unfair for those using marijuana for pain relief, but it is still Utah law.For more information on criminal charges for using marijuana for pain relief, contact a criminal defense attorney.

Legalized Marijuana is Taxable Marijuana

As neighboring states change their restrictions on marijuana by permitting all uses of the plant, the financial payback of legalized marijuana is becoming apparent as the decriminalized “drug” is now taxable. With medical and now financial benefits recognized, why does marijuana continue to be prohibited in states such as Utah and why was it outlawed in the first place?

Criminalization of “marihuana”

Photo by: Christian Frausto Bernal

Photo by: Christian Frausto Bernal

By the early 1930’s several states had criminalized marijuana due to racial prejudices against Mexico. In 1937 the U.S. as a nation jumped on board outlawing marijuana starting with the Marihuana Tax Act. Although racial prejudice was likely still an issue (note the Mexican spelling “marihuana” was used) it was said to be outlawed nationally for fear that it made people crazy and violent. In the last 80 years it has been determined that deranged tendencies are possible with or without the use of marijuana, yet marijuana use continues to be illegal in many states.

Slow progress for legalized marijuana

Currently, only four states including the nation’s capital permit recreational use of marijuana with 20 more states allowing full use of the plant for medical use only. Other states have either lessened their possession laws or now allow medical use of cannabis extracts as long as they are free of the psychoactive ingredients of the plant. Those remaining states that are hesitant to legalize any marijuana use include Utah where simple possession of marijuana can come with a 6 month stint in jail.

Health risks?

Photo by: ashton

Photo by: ashton

The main excuse used by states for keeping marijuana illegal is because of the temporary high that users can experience from THC, the plant’s psychoactive ingredient. This high can result in:

• Sluggish coordination
• Memory difficulty
• Red eyes
• Elevated heart rate
• Dry mouth
• An increased need to snack

All these effects typically dissipate within a few hours of “getting high”. There are also a few concerns of possible long term health risks associated with marijuana use including:

• Long term cognitive impairment (only when used by teenagers)
• Lung irritations or infections (Similar with inhaling any type of smoke)
• Potential dependency (as with any “feel-good” substance- alcohol and chocolate included)

Health benefits

Contrary to the small handful of health risks, marijuana an array of proven benefits for those suffering with medical conditions such as:

• Seizures and epilepsy
• MS
• Cancer
• HIV and AIDS
• Glaucoma
• Wasting syndrome

Decreased health risks and increased health benefits haven’t been enough to encourage all states to legalize marijuana so far, but what about the possibility for financial gain?

Tobacco and alcohol tax

Photo by: 401kcalculator.org

Photo by: 401kcalculator.org

Tobacco and alcohol are both substances that are known to be harmful and extremely addictive yet are 100% lawful once a person reaches a designated age. One of the main reasons for leniency towards tobacco and alcohol is likely due to the tax revenue they generate. Tobacco products such as cigarettes have an average tax of $1 dollar per pack, resulting in millions of dollars going into each state’s pockets annually. Alcohol taxes also contribute to every state in the sum of additional millions each year. With money in hand, many states including Utah throw a small percentage of the money generated at education and prevention of tobacco and alcohol use yet actually turn a blind eye on the health risks by keeping them legal. When will they do the same for marijuana which has far fewer complications?

Marijuana tax

States that have legalized marijuana have imposed taxes on it, and are already reaping the financial benefits.

• Colorado alone collecting over $130 million in taxes in 2015 from the nearly $1 billion dollars’ worth of marijuana sold.

• Oregon made $3.5 million on marijuana taxes in one month alone.

• Washington State is projected to make nearly $350 million on marijuana taxes annually by 2018.

Utah and other states that continue to criminalize marijuana are not only missing out on a massive taxable opportunity, they are losing money by arresting, prosecuting, and jailing those arrested for simple marijuana charges.

Until then…

Legalized Marijuana

Photo by: Satish Krishnamurthy

Money speaks loudly, and it is just a matter of time before the cost of housing inmates for pot charges along with the possible tax revenue from legalized marijuana calls to Utah loud enough for the state’s marijuana laws to be lifted entirely. Until then, small changes are hopefully on the horizon to lessen penalties for simple possession and remove the restrictions for medical marijuana use.