Legal marijuana reduces chronic pain but increases car crashes and drug overdoses, study suggests

By | May 16, 2019

Legal marijuana reduced ER visits for chronic pain in Colorado – but it drove up car crash hospitalizations by 10% and drug overdoses by 5%, study finds

  • Marijuana is now legal for medical use in the majority of US states, and for recreational use in 10 states 
  • Before the drug was legal, there was little research on how it would affect public health 
  • A new University of California, San Francisco study found that fewer people were hospitalized for chronic pain after weed was legal in Colorado 
  • But hospitalizations for ‘marijuana misuse’ alcohol- and drug-related problems all increase 

After marijuana is legalized in a state, fewer people seek chronic pain diagnoses and treatment, but more wind up in hospitals being treated for car crash injuries, overdoses or alcohol poisoning, according to a new study. 

Marijuana is now legal in the majority of US states and many see it as a win, offering better access to non-prescription treatment for pain and nausea. 

But states are just beginning to see the broader implications of legal weed. 

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco found that after Colorado legalized marijuana, hospital admissions for chronic pain fell by five percent. 

Ten percent more Coloradans, however, were seen in hospitals for car crash injuries, and five percent more were treated for problems related to drugs or alcohol. 

Legal weed is good for chronic pain rates, but bad for high driving, overdose and alcohol related injuries, new research suggests

Legal weed is good for chronic pain rates, but bad for high driving, overdose and alcohol related injuries, new research suggests 

Marijuana itself is generally safe to use and has minimal side effects. 

The only possible overdose death linked to it was that of an infant. 

Smoking or ingesting marijuana can lead to heart rate increases, a ‘high’ feeling and slower reaction times.  

Its interactions with the brain’s endocannibinoid system can create a feeling of calm and relaxation and alleviate pain. 

These effects are all well and good and safe on their own and in the safety of your home. 

But because it was only so recently legal anywhere in the US, marijuana’s broader public health consequences couldn’t be thoroughly studied until recently. 

To inform future policy and precautions, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) researchers looked to Colorado as a test case. 

Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in December 2012, so the study authors compared hospitalization data from the state from 2010 to 2014 to data from the same time period from New York and Oklahoma. 

WHY WE HAVE NO IDEA HOW HIGH IS TOO HIGH TO DRIVE 

Car crashes and fatalities have consistently increased in US states after they legalized. 

States with legal recreational marijuana saw increases of car crashes of between 5.2 and six percent following legalization. 

Stopping high driving is not as simple as introducing a breathalyzer, like police use to check for drunk driving.

Marijuana tolerance varies wildly from person to person. 

Compared to alcohol, marijuana leaves the bloodstream very quickly, but continues to have effects long after it’s virtually undetectable there because it lingers in fat and other tissues. 

Plus, THC – the psychoactive component of marijuana – can actually move back into the bloodstream hours or days after inhaling or ingesting it. 

Alcohol makes drivers drowsy, slows their comprehension and hampers hand-eye-foot coordination. 

THC, on the other hand, can change a driver’s perception of time, make them more indecisive and slow their reflexes. 

As a result, the same field sobriety tests won’t work for gauging drunk and high driving. 

Researchers are trying to develop a marijuana-specific field sobriety test that could be used in conjunction with breath, blood or urine tests.  

From records on 28 million people in the three states, there were 16 million hospitalizations. 

Overall, the number of people hospitalized was unaffected by the legalization of marijuana, the researchers found. 

But ‘the harms and benefits of marijuana legalization may be somewhat idiosyncratic to different individuals and contexts,’ said senior study author Dr Gregory Marcus, a cardiologist at UCSF. 

Using the other two states as controls – in case other factors could have influenced an increase or decrease in hospitalizations – the researchers found that more people were treated for injuries, but less for chronic pain in Colorado.

In a post legal weed world – perhaps unsurprisingly – hospital admissions for so-called cannabis abuse shot up much more steeply in Colorado following legalization in 2012 as compared to either New York or Oklahoma. 

Plus, the number of people hospitalized for car crash injuries increased by 10 percent, and drug and alcohol-related hospitalizations increased by five percent in Colorado. 

‘Given this information, it’s clear that, as a society, we need to recognize the importance of avoiding driving under the influence of cannabis just as we do with alcohol,’ says Dr Marcus. 

‘Cannabis is not necessarily benign, so people should not be so naive to believe that the the drug doesn’t involve any risks.’ 

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that cannabis is all bad, Dr Marcus says, given that cannabis legalization was linked to a reduction in hospitalizations for chronic pain. 

‘This suggests that there may be a beneficial role for cannabis,’ says Dr Marcus. 

‘I worry a little bit that the harms that we observed and report could be interpreted as evidence that legalization was a mistake, but, in fact, in my mind, it’s the opposite. 

‘Legalization is exactly what can enable more rigorous research and a better understanding of what cannabis is actually doing.’   


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