David Bradford couldn’t help but wince when he heard it.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was responding to a question about President Donald Trump’s position on marijuana legalization last Thursday. After expressing support for medical marijuana in general terms, Spicer suggested that recreational weed use is somehow linked to the opioid crisis.
“When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country,” Spicer said, “the last thing that we should be doing is encouraging people.”
Bradford, a health economist at the University of Georgia, has conducted research that demonstrates the exact opposite of what Spicer was getting at. Working with his daughter, a master’s student at his school, Bradford analyzed data on the prescribing habits of doctors and found that states saw significant declines in the number of pain medication prescriptions after passing medical marijuana laws.
“That was very discouraging,” Bradford said of Spicer’s remarks. “Our work, and indeed other people’s work, strongly suggests that, at least on the medical side of things, when you give people access to cannabis, you divert them from opioids and actually help the opioid crisis.”
Bradford wasn’t the only one troubled by the White House’s first public statement about pot policy. Several other researchers who have studied the relationship between medical marijuana and the opioid epidemic said Spicer is dead wrong if he thinks the skyrocketing rate of fatal overdoses in the U.S. is linked to legal weed. In fact, there’s strong evidence that indicates marijuana legalization actually reduces opioid-linked deaths.
Brendan Saloner, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, coauthored a 2014 study that looked at death certificates from all 50 states between 1999 and 2010. Saloner and his colleagues found that states with medical marijuana laws had 27 percent fewer deaths from opioid painkillers compared to states with no legal weed.
“He didn’t really connect the dots,” Saloner said of Spicer. “What I understood him to be saying was something like having legal marijuana would make the opioid epidemic worse. That kind of relies on a very outmoded, and frankly discredited, view of how people become dependent on drugs.”
Saloner cautioned that his research shows only a correlation between the availability of medical marijuana and declines in opioid overdoses — it’s not proof of a direct cause-and-effect relationship. It’s also unclear whether the outcome is the same in states with recreational marijuana laws, which Spicer singled out in his comments. But Saloner says there’s reason to believe people are swapping their prescription painkillers for weed, leading to fewer fatal overdoses.
“The most common indication for medical marijuana is chronic pain,” Saloner said. “So to the extent that people are substituting marijuana for opioid pain relievers, you’d expect a reduction in overdose death because people don’t die from marijuana.”
Bradford’s research went even further. By examining data from Medicare, he and his daughter found that doctors in medical marijuana states prescribed nearly 2,000 fewer doses of pain medication per year on average compared to their counterparts in states with no legal weed. The correlation was strongest in states with permissive pot laws, and it translated to hundreds of millions of dollars worth of savings for the taxpayer-funded healthcare program. Bradford also conducted a follow-up study that supported Saloner’s research showing declines in fatal drug overdoses in states with medical marijuana.
“The bottom line,” Bradford said, “is that if you approve medical cannabis laws, you can save money and save lives. If you want to get people off opiates, give them access to a dispensary.”
There’s other evidence that medical marijuana may help reduce opioid consumption, including a 2016 study that found lower rates of opioid use among people involved in fatal traffic accidents in states with legal weed. But all of the researchers who spoke to VICE News cautioned that more work is needed to definitively prove the link.
Some form of medical marijuana is now legal in 28 states and Washington, D.C., but scientists and doctors who want to research the plant are often stymied by red tape, since under federal law it remains in the same restrictive category of illegal drugs as heroin. The DEA rejected a petition to reclassify marijuana last year, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has consistently opposed efforts to legalize the drug. On Monday, Sessions told reporters at the Justice Department that he is “definitely not a fan of expanded use of marijuana.”
Dr. Yasmin Hurd, director of the Center for Addictive Disorders at the Mount Sinai Behavioral Health System, studies cannabidiol, a compound in marijuana commonly known as CBD. (It doesn’t get people high like THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in weed.) Hurd’s research suggests that CBD, which has been shown to reduce anxiety and relieve pain, could potentially be used to help opioid addicts kick their habits. But it will take years of research and clinical trials to know for sure, and she warned against the notion that pot is a panacea for the opioid epidemic.
“You need research — you need to know what works for what specific symptoms,” she said. “That’s completely different than saying just have recreational marijuana and it will cure opioid addiction. That’s not what we’re saying.”
Hurd wasn’t aware of Spicer’s comments about marijuana and the opioid crisis, but after hearing a summary, she said the Trump administration would be better off “promoting policies based on evidence” rather than using “anecdotal information.”
“This isn’t just about treating addiction, which is an epidemic in all communities,” she said. “It’s about allowing scientists and physicians to conduct research so we can inform the public about what might be beneficial and what might be harmful.”