Research can be fickle, especially with respect to public-health issues. One week, coffee is bad for your health; the next week, it is good. Same with red wine, chocolate, red meat, and innumerable other consumable products. The health research disagreements may now be coming to the marijuana industry.

A recent study published by Economic Inquiry concluded that the legalization of recreational marijuana reduced opioid-related deaths by between 20%-35%. In recapping the study, co-author Nathan W. Chan, an assistant professor in the Department of Resource Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, stated, “Focusing on the recent wave of recreational marijuana laws in the U.S., we find that opioid mortality rates drop when recreational marijuana becomes widely available via dispensaries.” Professor Chan co-authored the study with Jesse Burkhardt, assistant professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University, and Matthew Flyr, who is also with the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State.

If legalizing recreational marijuana contributes to reducing opioid-related deaths, that would be a big deal for the industry and would give state legislators and voters another important data point to consider. We caution against giving too much credence to one study, however. A recent Stanford University School of Medicine study found that states with medical marijuana laws had 23% more prescription opioid deaths than expected. Although the Stanford study focused primarily on the impact of medical marijuana legalization rather than recreational legalization, the two studies appear inconsistent; there is no obvious reason why medical marijuana legalization would lead to increased opioid-related deaths while recreational marijuana legalization would lead to decreased deaths.

We applaud Stanford, UMass-Amherst, and Colorado State for allowing their academics to investigate these important issues, and we hope more institutions pursue this type of research. For now, however, while there are promising signs that marijuana legalization may decrease opioid dependency and overdose deaths, there simply does not appear to be enough research to make a definitive conclusion.

We will continue to monitor these critical issues and report developments on our blog.