Oct. 18 (UPI) -- Opioid-related deaths in Colorado fell by more than 6 percent since the state legalized marijuana for recreational use in 2014, new research has found.
According to a study published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, "Colorado's legalization of recreational cannabis sales and use resulted in a 0.7 deaths per month reduction in opioid-related deaths."
The study's authors -- University of North Texas researchers Melvin D. Livingston, Tracey E. Barnett, Chris Delcher and Alexander C. Wagenaar -- said the findings represent "a reversal" of a 14-year increasing trend in opioid-related deaths in Colorado since 2000, and could provide a way to help alleviate the U.S. epidemic.
"As policymakers continue to grapple with both the growing opioid crisis and the rapidly changing landscape of marijuana laws in the U.S., scientific evidence is needed to help inform policy decisions to combat this disturbing upward trend in opioid-related deaths," Livingston said.
However, the authors also warned that the findings are preliminary and more research is needed.
"These initial results clearly show that continuing research is warranted as data become available, involving longer follow-ups and additional states that have legalized recreational cannabis," they said.
Robert Valuck, the coordinator of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, told The Denver Post there are too many factors to conclude that recreational marijuana leads to fewer opioid-related deaths.
"The whole thing is so convoluted, with so many different things going on in the marketplace, it's virtually impossible to assign cause and effect or credit and blame to any one thing," he said.
"It just hasn't been in place long enough," Wolk said. "Anything that does get published at this point should be considered preliminary data."
The study is the first to link legal recreational marijuana and a decrease in opioid-related deaths, though others have associated decreasing deaths with legalized medical cannabis.
A 2014 study found that states with medical marijuana laws between 1999 and 2010 saw an average decrease of 25 percent in opioid-related deaths, compared to states without such laws.