What Has Cannabis Legalization Taught Us?
In the past several years, thirty-two states have legalized cannabis for medical use, and ten have legalized recreational cannabis use. Canada has had a medical cannabis program since 2001 and Uruguay decriminalized the consumption of all formerly illicit drugs. More recently Peru, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia have all announced that medical cannabis will become legal. With a change like this seemingly sweeping the globe, what sorts of lessons have we learned?
Opioid Use Down
Opioid addiction is a serious epidemic that claimed the lives of over 49,000 people across the United States in 2017. Opioids are a class of pain medications that work by binding to the opioid receptors in the human body. They are extremely effective at relieving pain but also incredibly addictive and frequently overprescribed without an appropriate safeguard against potential addiction or overdose. A study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine medical journal suggests that medical cannabis is effective in relieving symptoms of chronic and neuropathic pain. Additionally, a correlation between states that have legalized cannabis use and a pattern of reduction in opioid-related deaths has emerged in recent years.
"There has been substantive evidence that marijuana can relieve pain at a lower risk of addiction than opioids and with virtually no risk of overdose," said Hefei Wen, an assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Kentucky College of Public Health in Lexington, Kentucky.
In the years between 1999 and 2010 there were thirteen states with medical cannabis laws, and in those states, the rates of fatal opioid overdoses were significantly lower as compared to the rest of the country.
Youth Usage Rates Unchanged
In Colorado where recreational cannabis use was made legal in 2014, authorities expected to see a rise in the number of underage users, but so far reports indicate that usage rates have stayed relatively stable. Dr. Tista Ghosh, interim chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told CBC News that adult usage remained pretty static until this year when authorities noted a slight uptick among 18-25-year-olds.
Impaired Driving Incidents Down
“The reassuring thing is that we did not see, in the evidence that we reviewed, any significant increases in driving fatalities or accidents associated with legalization,” said UBC’s Michael-John Milloy, one of the authors of a study written pre-legalization by a group of physicians and researchers for the Canadian Senate. The study looked at traffic accident deaths in Washington and Colorado and indicated that alcohol-related road deaths decreased in states with legal cannabis.
The cannabis industry is the fastest growing industry in North America, expected to be worth $57 billion worldwide by 2027. Forbes.com predicts that with a budget of $1.3 trillion in health care spending, European government-subsidized health care systems will bring the medical cannabis market to dominate Europe and become the most significant medical marijuana market in the world. Meanwhile, in Canada, there are now ninety publicly traded cannabis companies in Canada with a combined market value of $31 billion. The South American medical cannabis market is predicted to reach $776 million by 2027.
More Research Taking Place
With legalization comes funding and licenses for research, allowing for a more in-depth examination of the effects of cannabinoids and cannabis therapy. Frontiers in Pharmacology has the results from a 2017 study that took data from the 2,830 Releaf App™ users who self-reported "statistically and clinically significant therapeutic benefits" after using cannabis. Responders were using medical cannabis to treat a variety of health complaints—most frequently pain, anxiety, and symptoms relating to depression. Researchers found that the higher the pre-dose symptom, the greater the sense of relief, and concluded that patient managed cannabis use is associated with clinically significant improvements in pain relief.
Four hundred and nine people with a diagnosis of insomnia participated in another Releaf App™ study entitled Effectiveness of Raw, Natural Medical Cannabis Flower for Treating Insomnia under Naturalistic Conditions this past spring. In this study, researchers found that there was an average symptom severity reduction of −4.5 points on a 0–10 point visual analog scale. Interestingly, the method of consumption played a role, with the use of pipes and vaporizers being associated with greater symptom relief.
We’ve learned a few things in recent years, including a titillating statistic that boldly proclaims that cannabis users have more sex. The Journal of Sexual Medicine published a population-based study that explored whether frequent consumers experienced adverse effects. The researchers found that “that higher marijuana use was associated with increased coital frequency.”