Marijuana legalization linked to falls in alcohol, tobacco, and pain reliever consumption

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Marijuana used to be legal for most of human history until the early 20th century. In the United States, cannabis became illegal across the country once Congress adopted the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. To this day, cannabis is illegal at the federal level, but most US states have legalized the use and sale of medical marijuana, and about half of those states have gone to the extreme and permitted recreational use.

While the notion that marijuana is a ‘gateway’ to the use of other, potentially more dangerous substances than controlled substances such as opium and cocaine, has been fully debunked by numerous studies, many feared that legalization would lead to an increase in Use of other drugs. But, if anything, the opposite seems to be true.

In a recent study, scientists at the University of Washington evaluated trends in the use of alcohol, nicotine, and over-the-counter pain relievers in Washington state following the legalization of cannabis. The study included 12,500 young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.

According to the results, the prevalence of alcohol use decreased during the past month, excessive alcohol consumption, cigarette use, and painkiller misuse decreased in the past year. However, the prevalence of e-cigarette use increased during the evaluation time frame, and it is not clear exactly why. The prevalence of e-cigarette use has increased in recent years nationwide, so these trends may not be related to the legalization of marijuana.

“Contrary to concerns about spillover effects, the application of non-medical cannabis coincided with a decrease in alcohol and cigarette use and the misuse of pain relievers,” the researchers said, adding:

“Our findings add to the evidence that legalization of non-medical cannabis has not led to significant increases in the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and nonprescription opioids. … The findings suggest that the most important public health concerns related to cannabis legalization and the evolution of legalized cannabis markets may be specific to cannabis use and related consequences.”

The idea that marijuana could help people drink less is supported by other research. A 2021 study of nearly 100 individuals undergoing alcohol treatment found that cannabis use helped patients consume 30% less drinks and reduced the risk of binge drinking by two times. In 2022, researchers at Cornell University used data from Medicaid Reports on Prescription Drugs from 2011 to 2019 and found that marijuana legalization was associated with lower use of prescription drugs for anxiety, sleep, pain, and seizures. And in 2019, researchers found that states that have legalized marijuana have seen a decline in opioid prescriptions as a result.

“Real-world data from legalization countries contradict longstanding claims that cannabis is a kind of ‘gateway’ substance. Indeed, in many cases, cannabis regulation is associated with reduced use of other substances, including many prescription drugs,” said NORML Deputy Director Paul Armantano in a statement.

The results appeared in Adolescent Health Magazine.

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