SPECIAL REPORT: Study finds opioid deaths drop following marijuana legalization

ELMIRA, N.Y. (18 NEWS) - Following marijuana legalization in Colorado, a report shows opioid overdose deaths have been on the decline.

In this special report, 18 News speaks to local politicians to see if they would support something like this if it came to New York State. 


A study by the American Journal of Public Health shows opioid deaths on the rise in Colorado since 2000, but something caused a decline in 2014. 

Since 2012, the state has allowed anyone 21 years or older to possess or use up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. 

It wasn't until January 1, 2014 - the significance seen in this graph - where selling and purchasing marijuana at licensed stores became legal in the centennial state. 

Past studies have shown the relationship between medicinal marijuana and opioid deaths, but this is one of the first to look at recreational effects.

Overall, opioid related deaths decreased 6.5 percent from 2014 to 2016. 

The authors of the report recognize the findings are in its infant stages, but if this were to come to New York State, would politicians in New York support it?

The two that 18 News spoke to, already support marijuana for medicinal purposes.

"We legalize marijuana then what's next?" State Senator Tom O'Mara (R, C, I-Big Flats) asked. "We legalize prostitution because we could make money off of that? Then what's next after that? ...To go to full open recreational marijuana, I'm not supportive of at this point and I'm certainly interested in seeing what goes on in these other states."

Congressman Tom Reed (R-NY 23) also shared his position.

"If this is a potential help in regards to the opioid problem, maybe that's something that would warrant it to be considered, but there are bigger issues on top of just that issue," Reed said. "I mean, when you talk about legalizing a drug on the streets not under a doctor's supervision like medicinal marijuana, you gotta look at the social impacts. What is this going to do in regards to safety on our roadways, [and] safety in the workplace?"

Overall, Reed defers to the state on the issue. He'd be hesitant to support it right now given all the "unknowns" he says, and he adds just because it might end one crisis, how do we know it's not starting another?

Both politicians believe we're still early in the game and would rather wait to see how other states do first. 

As for how the opioid crisis began, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions says marijuana played a part. 

"The DEA said that a huge percentage of the heroin addiction starts with prescriptions," Sessions said. "That may be an exaggerated number. They had it as high as 80 percent. We think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs too, but we'll see at what the facts show."

Both O'Mara and Reed agree, though, that the epidemic wasn't sparked by one cause. 

"I do believe that over-prescribing of opioids has been a significant part of the heroin and opioid epidemic that we have here locally, across the state, and across the country," O'Mara said. 

Reed says addiction is a disease and he wants to know what motivates the addiction in the first place. 

"That is a much deeper cause and effect conversation than just saying, 'It's the doctors who prescribe it, it's the marijuana that the individual used,'" Reed said. "There's a bigger question here and I want to make sure our police reflects that it's not as simple as a 30-second soundbite."

Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a feasibility study on recreational marijuana last month which was a 180-degree turn from his stance in the past. 

The Department of Health would lead the study with input from New York State Police and other agencies. It would look at the health, economic, and criminal justice impacts. 

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