14-Year Trend of Rising Opioid Deaths Reversed in Colorado After Marijuana Legalization

What's the opposite of a gateway drug?


Caveman Chuck Coker/flickr

Since legal recreational marijuana sales began in Colorado in January 2014, the state has seen a 6 percent drop in opioid deaths, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. The drop follows 14 years of rising opioid deaths, going back to the first year for which the esearchers had data.

That suggests yet another argument for marijuana legalization: Pot might stem and even reverse some of the trends unleashed by America's decades-long drug war.

The federal government's obsession with marijuana, for example, stymied research into its use as a pain reliever, helping to create the conditions for the so-called opioid epidemic.

President Donald Trump looks set to double down on the failed "tough on crime" approach to opioids, reportedly planning to declare the opioid crisis a "national emergency." But it's the drug war that's the problem. A shift in attitudes could go a long way to combat opioid use in a way that strong-arm tactics never can.

"Legalization of cannabis in Colorado was associated with short-term reductions in opioid-related deaths," the American Journal of Public Health paper concludes. "As additional data become available, research should replicate these analyses in other states with legal recreational cannabis."

Washington, which legalized recreational marijuana by ballot initiative in 2012, did not see its first recreational marijuana shops open until July 2014. Since then, recreational marijuana has been legalized via ballot initiative in Alaska, Oregon, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts, and via the legislature in Vermont. None of those states have yet had legal marijuana sales for as long as Colorado did for the research study.

The connection between easier access to marijuana and lower opioid deaths has been explored before, however. A 2014 study found that from 1999 to 2010, states that had medical cannabis laws had a nearly 25 percent lower "mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate" than states that prohibited medical cannabis.

"Because chronic pain is a major indication for medical cannabis," those researchers wrote, "laws that establish access to medical cannabis may change overdose mortality related to opioid analgesics in states that have enacted them."

NEXT: Police Deaths Up for 2016, but Are Already Trending Back Down

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  1. What’s the opposite of a gateway drug?

    A getaway drug of course.


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  2. What’s the opposite of a gateway drug?

    Gateways can be exits, too, y’know.

  3. Women cry for it. Men die for it.

    That picture really predicted the war on drugs.

  4. Except that now they’re all addicted to the marijuana instead of opioids. LATERAL MOVE.

    1. There’s a reason that they call it the Devil’s Weed, while they don’t have any satanic names for opioids.

    2. I hope that was an attempt at a joke.
      Otherwise, you may want to take a long hard look at the myth of ‘cannabis addiction’.
      Cannabis is about as ‘addictive’ as pornography or gambling, or visiting Reason.com.


      1. You’ve been here before, I remember you. So you should know better already. Also, only JCR gets to sign his name.

        1. N_J is just maintaining the stereotype that people who refer to themselves as “netizens” are tiresome, humorless, and probably autistic.

            1. More like, FIST OF NETIQUETTE!

    3. You don’t get addicted to marijuana. Have you no knowledge of the world at all?

  5. Shhhhhh, don’t tell the AG.

    1. The AG told me that “good people do not smoke pot”. That’s all that I need to know…

  6. This is good news, but I’m skeptical of the correlation. I’m hoping a longer study can be done. There may be other factors involved as well, like federal and local officials may be cracking down harder on opioid use and possession.

    1. Agreed. I haven’t read the paper, but the abstract gives a confidence interval that ranges from a decline in opioid deaths to essentially no decline at all. The confidence interval is way too wide to say anything definitively.

      1. Can’t get full-text without paying.

        From the abstract: “Colorado’s legalization of recreational cannabis sales and use resulted in a 0.7 deaths per month (b?=??0.68; 95% confidence interval?=??1.34, ?0.03) reduction in opioid-related deaths.”



        Wow. If that’s a graph from the paper, it’s not at all convincing. I see no reason to prefer the bilinear fit over just about any other model you could think of.

    2. Obviously correlation does not equal causation, but given there was a constant increase in opioid abuse and then a sudden decrease, it’s worth looking in to.

  7. Dumb stoners spent all of their heroin money on weed!

    1. Get so high they can’t even find their way to the damn crack house.

      1. With enough weed Doritos become preferable to opiates. Obviously.

  8. Sorry but this is a fallacy. You cannot equate the fall in opioid deaths with the legalization of marijuana. Opioids are addictive and marijuana is not. It is much more likely that the trend in due to more awareness of the dangers of opioids and the likelihood of addiction and that is causing people to steer clear of them. Trying to connect the two is no different than someone claiming that umbrellas cause rain because when it rains you see more umbrellas. The real question is not the decrease in opioid deaths since legalization but how much has marijuana use increased since legalization. Personally, I think drug laws like making marijuana illegal are stupid when alcohol is not. Alcohol is far more dangerous to others than marijuana. I have never heard of someone on pot attacking or killing people in a fit of rage. More important, if people want to waste their lives smoking pot and achieving little, that is their right as long they understand decisions have consequences. Do not think that we, taxpayers, should be forced to pay the bills when the health problems and their lack of resources in old age become an issue. Unfortunately, many of the people who smoke pot are the same ones who supported Bernie and think the world owes them “free stuff” for life.

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