JAN 29, 2023 10:00 AM PST

Allowing recreational marijuana use could decrease usage of prescription codeine

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Opioid overuse has become a nationwide epidemic in the United States. Encompassing a wide variety of narcotics like codeine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, opioids, while serving a medical use, are dangerously at risk of being abused on a regular basis. Unfortunately, codeine abuse, in particular, can lead to overdose and death. In fact, over the past 20 years, over half a million people have died from opioid-related overdoses, highlighting that opioid use is a significant public health issue.

A new study suggests that there may be a way to help reduce the occurrence of opioid overuse, particularly codeine overuse. The answer involves something that’s become a common trend in recent years: the legalization of recreational use of marijuana, which researchers suggest could lead to a reduction in prescription codeine usage. The team’s results are described in an article published in Health Economics.

As one of the first studies to look closely at the connection between recreational marijuana usage and opioid usage, researchers pulled data from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Automation of Reports and Consolidation Orders System (ARCOS), which follows where certain controlled substances go in the U.S: who prescribes them, who gets them, and so on. What they found when analyzing ARCOS data within states that legally allow recreational marijuana use was especially interesting.

The team found that there was about a 25% reduction in the pharmacy-based issuance of codeine. The longer recreational marijuana laws were in place, it seemed, the greater the reduction in codeine issuance.

However, the legalization of recreational marijuana seemed to have little to no effect on the distribution of other types of opioids.

Researchers point to the potential pain benefits that marijuana offers as part of the reason for this decrease in codeine usage. Specifically, people looking for pain relief may be open to considering using marijuana instead of codeine when they experience pain, reducing usage and possibly overuse. So far, about 21 U.S. states have passed laws allowing for recreational marijuana usage. 

Sources: Eurekalert!; CDC; Health Economics

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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