Cover: Impact of Recreational Cannabis Legalization on Opioid Prescribing and Opioid-Related Hospital Visits in Colorado

Impact of Recreational Cannabis Legalization on Opioid Prescribing and Opioid-Related Hospital Visits in Colorado

An Observational Study

Published in: Journal of General Internal Medicine (2023). doi: 10.1007/s11606-023-08195-3

Posted on rand.org Jun 27, 2023

by Christine Buttorff, George Sam Wang, Asa Wilks, Gregory J. Tung, Amii M. Kress, Daniel Schwam, Rosalie Liccardo Pacula

Background

Cannabis may be a substitute for opioids but previous studies have found conflicting results when using data from more recent years. Most studies have examined the relationship using state-level data, missing important sub-state variation in cannabis access.

Objective

To examine cannabis legalization on opioid use at the county level, using Colorado as a case study. Colorado allowed recreational cannabis stores in January 2014. Local communities could decide whether to allow dispensaries, creating variation in the level of exposure to cannabis outlets.

Design

Observational, quasi-experimental design exploiting county-level variation in allowance of recreational dispensaries.

Subjects

Colorado residents.

Measures

We use licensing information from the Colorado Department of Revenue to measure county-level exposure to cannabis outlets. We use the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (2013-2018) to construct opioid-prescribing measures of number of 30-day fills and total morphine equivalents, both per county resident per quarter. We construct outcomes of opioid-related inpatient visits (2011-2018) and emergency department visits (2013-2018) with Colorado Hospital Association data. We use linear models in a differences-in-differences framework that accounts for the varying exposure to medical and recreational cannabis over time. There are 2048 county-quarter observations used in the analysis.

Results

We find mixed evidence of cannabis exposure on opioid-related outcomes at the county level. We find increasing exposure to recreational cannabis is associated with a statistically significant decrease in number of 30-day fills (coefficient: -117.6, p-value<0.01) and inpatient visits (coefficient: -0.8, p-value: 0.03), but not total MME nor ED visits. Counties with no medical exposure prior to recreational legalization experience greater reductions in the number of 30-day fills and MME than counties with prior medical exposure (p=0.02 for both).

Conclusions

Our mixed findings suggest that further increases in cannabis beyond medical access may not always reduce opioid prescribing or opioid-related hospital visits at a population level.

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