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Cannabis Legalization Linked to Drop in Use of Alcohol, Tobacco and Pain Meds

A.J. Herrington

By A.J. Herrington

May 19, 2022

A new study by researchers at the University of Washington has determined that the adoption of cannabis legalization laws is associated with a decreased use of alcohol, tobacco and pain medications among young adults. The research adds additional evidence that cannabis does not lead to the use of other drugs, a common trope known as the gateway drug theory that is often cited by cannabis opponents to continue the prohibition of the plant.

“Contrary to concerns about spillover effects, implementation of legalized non-medical cannabis coincided with decreases in alcohol and cigarette use and pain reliever misuse,”

in an abstract of the study.

The study assessed trends in the use of

, tobacco and pain medications among young people following the legalization of recreational marijuana in the state of Washington. To complete the study, researchers analyzed survey data collected from 1,250 young adults aged 18 to 25.

The researchers determined that the prevalence of alcohol use within the past month, heavy episodic alcohol consumption and the use of cigarettes by study subjects all decreased after cannabis legalization. The use of pain medications over the past year also declined.

The use of e-cigarettes increased significantly during the study period, although the researchers did not cannabis a cause for the rise. However, the authors of the study noted that the use of e-cigarettes among young people rose nationwide, suggesting that efforts to legalize marijuana may not be associated with the increase.

“Our findings add to evidence that the legalization of non-medical cannabis has not led to dramatic increases in the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and non-prescribed opioids,” the authors of the study added. “The findings indicate that the most critical public health concerns surrounding cannabis legalization and the evolution of legalized cannabis markets may be specific to cannabis use and related consequences.”

Research Debunks Gateway Drug Theory

The study is consistent with other research that has found that cannabis legalization does not increase the use of other substances.

published last year found that using cannabis helped 100 individuals undergoing treatment for alcohol misuse consume 30 percent fewer alcoholic drinks and cut their risk of binge drinking in half. 

Earlier this year, a study by researchers affiliated with the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia found that patients with osteoarthritis who began using medical cannabis reduced their intake of opioid pain relievers and saw overall improvements in quality of life.

“Our findings indicate that providing access to MC [medical cannabis], helps patients with chronic pain due to OA [osteoarthritis] reduce their levels of opioid usage in addition to improving pain and QoL [quality of life]. Furthermore, a majority of patients did not feel intoxicated or high from MC, and of those who did, only a small percentage said it interfered with their daily activities,”  the authors wrote in the study,

by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “Our findings support the literature in that MC reduces the use of opioids for the treatment of chronic pain.”

Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said that the accumulating research continues to debunk assertions that using cannabis can lead to the use of more serious drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines or opioids.

“Real-world data from legalization states disputes longstanding claims that cannabis is some sort of ‘gateway’ substance,”

in a statement. “In fact, in many instances, cannabis regulation is associated with the decreased use of other substances, including many prescription medications.”

The new study, “Trends in Alcohol, Cigarette, E-Cigarette, and Nonprescribed Pain Reliever Use Among Young Adults in Washington State After Legalization of Nonmedical Cannabis,” was published earlier this month by the peer-reviewed Journal of Adolescent Health. 

A.J. Herrington

About The Author

A.J. Herrington

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