By Daliah Singer

As the nation grapples with an opioid crisis that kills more than 130 people every day, Colorado thinks a solution may lie in a joint, a vape pen or a topical. On Friday, it becomes the third state in the nation after New York and Illinois to allow doctors to recommend medical marijuana for any condition for which they would prescribe an opioid.

In two other states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, patients diagnosed with opioid use disorder may be advised to use medical marijuana instead of opioids. In most states where medical marijuana is legal, it can be accessed for general pain relief. But now in Colorado, post-operative patients or those struggling with acute pain from an injury can potentially use medical marijuana instead of opioids.

“It was designed to give physicians a legal, open option to discuss [medical marijuana use] with patients,” said Colorado Rep. Edie Hooton, a Democrat, who co-sponsored the bill. “It normalizes the conversation around the issue.” Research does not yet categorically support the idea that medical cannabis can replace opioids or reduce opioid dependence or overdose.

Last year, the Minnesota Department of Health released the results of its study of 2,245 patients taking medical marijuana for “intractable pain,” which is chronic. (The Colorado bill focuses on acute pain.) Of the 353 patients who self-reported that they were using opioids when they began consuming medical marijuana, 63 percent had reduced or eliminated their opioid use after six months.

But another 2018 study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found the opposite — that medical marijuana users “were significantly more likely to report medical use of prescription drugs in the past 12 months.”

“The science for this is really in its infancy, and policy is far outpacing what we know based on evidence,” said Ziva Cooper, research director at the University of California, Los Angeles, Cannabis Research Initiative. “We’re very far from coming up with a conclusive statement saying cannabis can be helpful as a substitute for opioids based on controlled studies.”

Much of the excitement surrounding the potential for cannabis to reduce opioid-related deaths originated with a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, which found that between 1999 and 2010, states with medical cannabis laws saw close to a 25 percent reduction in opioid overdose deaths.

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