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Some people turn to medical marijuana as a way to treat chronic pain. And by doing so, they avoid drugs that are dangerous and addictive. Now two new studies show that marijuana use may have helped slow the opioid crisis. NPR's Richard Harris explains.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Many Americans suffer from chronic pain. But we've learned the hard way that when they reach for powerful pills, that can sometimes lead to deadly addictions. Those twin problems got David Bradford at the University of Georgia interested in the potential role of marijuana.
DAVID BRADFORD: We do know that cannabis is much less risky than opiates as far as likelihood of dependency. And certainly there's no mortality risk.
HARRIS: And the National Academy of Sciences says the evidence is good that cannabis is effective at treating pain for some conditions. So Bradford and three colleagues, including his scientist daughter, decided to see whether people who can get easy access to medical marijuana are less likely to get prescription opioids. The answer, they report in JAMA Internal Medicine, is yes.
BRADFORD: There are substantial reductions in opiate use in states that turn on particularly dispensary-based programs.
HARRIS: They studied Medicare data, which is convenient, though it mostly covers people over the age of 65. They found a 14 percent reduction in opioid prescriptions in states that allow easy access to medical marijuana through dispensaries. So this suggests that expanding the use of medical marijuana could put a dent in the opioid epidemic. A similar study also published in the same journal finds a smaller but similar effect among another group where data is readily available - Medicaid patients.
BRADFORD: But it is not without risks. Like any drug in our FDA-approved pharmacopeia, it can be misused. So I hope that nobody reading our study will say, oh, great, the answer to the opiate problem is just put cannabis in everybody's medicine chest and we'll be good to go. We're certainly not saying that.
HARRIS: One concern is marijuana use might encourage people to experiment with more dangerous drugs. Dr. Mark Olfson, a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University, authored a study that found marijuana users were six times more likely to abuse opioids.
MARK OLFSON: A young person starting marijuana is maybe putting him or herself at increased risk. On the other hand, there likely is a role for medical marijuana in reducing the use of prescribed opioids for the management of pain.
HARRIS: This is a question of balancing risks and benefits. And that's not possible with the current studies based on broad populations. Olfson says what is really needed is studies that follow individuals to see whether marijuana use really does supplant opioids. It's hard to do studies like that because the federal government regards marijuana as a very dangerous drug and puts tight controls on research.
OLFSON: That does make this a difficult area to study. And it's unfortunate because with an aging population, we have lots of people who have pain conditions who will benefit from appropriate management.
HARRIS: Bradford at the University of Georgia says his team has more studies in the works with results expected in about a year. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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