Newswise — A University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor’s research has shown that local access to legal drugs at the county level reduces opioid and heroin-related mortality rates. 

Dr. Rhet Smith, assistant professor of economics, published the article, “The Effect of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries on Opioid and Heroin Overdose Mortalities,” in October. Smith’s co-authors include Dr. Julio Garin at Claremont McKenna College and Dr. R. Vincent Pohl at the University of Georgia.

While previous research has shown that medical cannabis laws reduce opioid-related mortality rates, Smith and his co-authors argue that changing the law alone is not enough, while a change in access to legal drugs makes all the difference in the world.  

The researchers reviewed mortality records obtained from the Centers for Disease Control spanning from 2009 to 2015 to determine if the presence of dispensaries in counties that have medical cannabis laws had an effect on deaths that involved prescription opioids, synthetic opioids, and heroin. The results indicate that legal access to drugs at the county level can mitigate the opioid epidemic.

In states that have medical cannabis laws, the researchers found that mortality rates among non-Hispanic white men related to opioids and prescription opioids declined by 6 to 8 percent in counties that have dispensaries, when compared to counties that do not have dispensaries. Meanwhile, mortality due to heroin overdose in non-Hispanic white men due to heroin overdose declines by more than 10 percent.

“The current state of the opioid epidemic in the U.S. is definitely a problem that we have been grappling with for a number of years and trying to find ways to contain it and reduce its impact,” Smith said. “The medical cannabis laws themselves aren’t what’s having this effect of reducing mortality rates. Once the dispensaries open and people can legally access these drugs, that is when you see the changes in mortality rates.”

In the future, Smith is interested in expanding the research to explore how the opioid epidemic and changing marijuana laws affect prison populations and employee drug testing, as well as exploring additional factors that can reduce overdose and mortality rates related to opioid and heroin abuse.

“The legalization of marijuana and the opioid epidemic are topics that haven’t been thoroughly explored,” Smith said. “We hope to shed light on the spillover effects that arise from changes in policies and law and increased substance abuse in the United States.”