A study looking at opioid-related deaths in Colorado saw these fatalities drop as a result of recreational cannabis legalization in the state.

New research published last week in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that the legalization of recreational cannabis in Colorado resulted in a reversal of opioid-related deaths by 6.5 percent. The U.S. is facing an epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse, leading to more than 90 deaths every day. That cannabis legalization can help reverse this trend is welcome news.

Opioids are a class of narcotic drugs that act on the nervous system to produce powerful morphine-like effects. Commonly recommended by doctors for pain relief, opioids interact with opioid receptors to reduce the sending of pain messages to the brain.

 In 2017, more than 45,000 American died as a result of an opioid overdose. Nearly half of those deaths involved a prescription opioid. Opioids include prescription painkillers like Codeine, Fentanyl, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, and more, the classification also includes the illegal drug heroin, which often becomes the final step for those fighting opioid addiction. About 80% of people who turn to illegal heroin first misused prescription opioids.

Performed by University of North Texas Health Science Center researchers and their colleagues, the study concluded that, “After Colorado’s legalization of recreational cannabis sale and use, opioid-related deaths decreased more than 6% in the following 2 years.”

The authors examined trends in monthly opiate overdose fatalities in Colorado before and after the state’s recreational marijuana market opened in 2014 and included data from 2000-2015. The researchers attempted to isolate the effect of recreational, rather than medical, cannabis by comparing data in Colorado to that of Nevada, which allowed medical but not recreational cannabis during that period.

While there has been positive research showing that medical cannabis programs lead to decreases in opioid use and abuse, this is the first study to specifically look at the effects of recreational marijuana on opioid deaths.

Opioid-related hospitalizations were found to have dropped significantly in states after the passing of medical marijuana laws. That may be because cannabis is often highly effective at treating the same types of chronic pain that patients are often prescribed opiates for. Given the choice between cannabis and opiates, many patients appear to be opting for the former, and when used as an adjunct to pain medications, patients are able to user fewer prescription drugs.

The authors of the new study note that the results of the study are preliminary, given that their research encompasses only two years of data after the state’s first recreational cannabis shops opened in 2014. However, as more data becomes available and more studies are completed, perhaps we will get a clearer picture of the benefits cannabis can play in battling America’s opioid epidemic.

“As policymakers continue to grapple with both the growing opioid crisis and the rapidly changing landscape of cannabis laws in the U.S., scientific evidence is needed to help inform policy decisions to combat this disturbing upward trend in opioid-related deaths,” said Melvin D. Livingston, PhD, lead author of the study.