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Could marijuana prevent opioid deaths? Here’s what a UNT researcher says

A study by UNT Health Science Center assistant professor suggests marijuana use may reduce opioid-related deaths.

That doesn’t mean smoking pot is an overall positive, said Melvin Livingston, lead author of a recent study and an assistant professor at UNT Health Science Center. But he said it’s a call for more scholarship in the area.

The study, published in October, indicated legal recreational marijuana use reduced opioid overdose deaths in Colorado by 6 percent during a two-year-period beginning in 2013. But researchers only had two years of data on legal recreational marijuana use to draw from, Livingston said.

“We have relatively little data to go on,” he said. “Right now, there are a flurry of studies being done. If we could replicate the data, it would have an impact.”

The Livingston study looked at opioid-death related data in Colorado from 2000 to 2015. Beginning in 2013, consumers 21 and over could legally purchase up to an ounce of marijuana.

Livingston and members of his team recorded a 6 percent reduction in opioid related deaths over the two years of legal marijuana use, compared to a steady increase in deaths during the previous 13 years, when pot was illegal.

Their findings are reinforced by other studies:

  • A University of Michigan study that surveyed 244 individuals being treated for chronic pain reported a 64 percent reduction in opioid use after using medical marijuana, according to research published last year in the Journal of Pain.
  • A study published in October 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported a nearly 25 percent lower opioid-related overdose death rate for states that had legalized the use of medical marijuana compared to rates of those states where pot was illegal.

“Now we’re in a scramble to to figure out the unintended consequences, good and bad,” Livingston said. “We have evidence that marijuana use is a good thing in terms of opioid overdoses, but we need to make sure the overall health impact is a positive thing. If we save a hundred lives from opioid overdoses but we lose 1,000 lives in car crashes because of marijuana, we have not done any good.”

In Tarrant County, the number of opioid-related deaths has been flat, but significant. Seventy-eight opioid-related deaths were recorded by the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office in 2017 by the end of October. In 2016, the office recorded 93 opioid-related deaths and recorded 89 in 2015.

Nationwide, 91 Americans die from opioid-related overdoses every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tracey E. Barnett, associate professor, associate dean at UNTHSC’s School of Public Health and study co-author, Chris Delcher, University of Florida assistant professor and Alex C. Wagenaar, Emory University research professor, also contributed to Livingston’s study.

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3

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