Kevin Ballinger shows his variety pack of medicinal marijuana at his medical marijuana shop, Herb's Medicinals, in Berthoud on Thursday, February 23, 2012. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

Do medical marijuana laws reduce opioid overdoses? A new study adds a layer of nuance.

As the opioid crisis deepens in many places across the country, an increasing number of researchers and advocates are looking at legal marijuana as a possible solution. But a new study suggests that the connection between the two is more complicated than previously understood.

The study, which was published online this month by the Journal of Health Economics, makes two significant findings.

First, it confirms the results of a groundbreaking 2014 study that found states with medical marijuana laws have lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses. The connection was most dramatic, the new study concludes, in states that allowed dispensaries. For cannabis advocates, that is a major result because it provides further evidence that, when given the option, people may choose to treat pain with marijuana instead of with highly addictive opioids.

But the study’s second finding adds a complicating layer to the debate.

Related: Jeff Sessions says marijuana a path toward opioid addiction, patients should take aspirin for pain

As more and more states adopted medical marijuana laws, those laws’ link to a reduction in opioid overdoses appeared to diminish, according to the study. When researchers included data after 2010 in their analysis, they found that the effectiveness of having any medical marijuana law “completely disappears.” While states that allowed dispensaries continued to see a connection to lower fatal overdose rates, researchers wrote that, “the magnitude of even this component of the policy has changed[.]”

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