NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The opioid crisis is killing tens of thousands of people each year. But a new study says medical marijuana could drastically cut down on the number of opioid prescriptions, leading to fewer deaths.
According to a JAMA Internal Medicine study released this week, when a state legalized medical marijuana, opioid prescriptions fell by more than two million daily doses a year, and those prescriptions decreased even more - by nearly four million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened.
"It's frankly not surprising that they show there's less opioids being prescribed when there is an alternative of medical marijuana being provided and that goes along with other studies that are similar showing things like opioid deaths are reduced when marijuana's available as an alternative," said LSU Health Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Ross DeLeonardo.
Medical marijuana could be available to patients in Louisiana by this summer. Those with cancer, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, seizure disorders and some other conditions would be eligible. DeLeonardo believes it could also be a successful tool in combating the opioid crisis.
"In Louisiana, about 800 to 900 people per year die in opioid-related overdoses, drug overdoses, so any kind of legislation that is passed that allows medical cannabis to be an option for people is probably going to reduce those deaths," said DeLeonardo.
We spoke with the CEO of the RX Greenhouse. Pending final approval from the State Pharmacy Board, he could soon open the first medical marijuana dispensary in the Greater New Orleans area. He also has one in Maryland where he says there's been success with opioid patients.
"We've seen it here locally in Cumberland, Maryland where we have opioid patients that we're able to reduce their dose but again it's something that needs to be done in conjunction with the prescribing provider so that you can work out a regimen that will make the patient successful," said RX Greenhouse CEO Sajal Roy.
While DeLeonardo believes Louisiana could also see a drop in opioid prescriptions as a result of legalized medical marijuana, he says it needs to be studied more.
"I think it would be important for medical cannabis, something that is studied further. Most medicines have to go through a rigorous FDA process, and right now with cannabis being a Schedule 1 drug, it makes it very difficult for researchers to explore exactly what it is in cannabis that works for people, what safe levels are, what doses are, so that would be an important next step," DeLeonardo said.
According to the JAMA Internal Medicine study, medical pot laws led to significant reductions in opioid prescriptions in the Medicare Part D population. It adds, that finding was especially effective in states that allowed dispensaries and for decreasing Hydrocodone and Morphine prescriptions.