Changes in Opioid and Benzodiazepine Poisoning Deaths After Cannabis Legalization in the US: A County-level Analysis, 2002-2020

Epidemiology. 2023 Jul 1;34(4):467-475. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000001609. Epub 2023 Mar 16.


Background: Cannabis legalization for medical and recreational purposes has been suggested as an effective strategy to reduce opioid and benzodiazepine use and deaths. We examined the county-level association between medical and recreational cannabis laws and poisoning deaths involving opioids and benzodiazepines in the US from 2002 to 2020.

Methods: Our ecologic county-level, spatiotemporal study comprised 49 states. Exposures were state-level implementation of medical and recreational cannabis laws and state-level initiation of cannabis dispensary sales. Our main outcomes were poisoning deaths involving any opioid, any benzodiazepine, and opioids with benzodiazepines. Secondary analyses included overdoses involving natural and semi-synthetic opioids, synthetic opioids, and heroin.

Results: Implementation of medical cannabis laws was associated with increased deaths involving opioids (rate ratio [RR] = 1.14; 95% credible interval [CrI] = 1.11, 1.18), benzodiazepines (RR = 1.19; 95% CrI = 1.12, 1.26), and opioids+benzodiazepines (RR = 1.22; 95% CrI = 1.15, 1.30). Medical cannabis legalizations allowing dispensaries was associated with fewer deaths involving opioids (RR = 0.88; 95% CrI = 0.85, 0.91) but not benzodiazepine deaths; results for recreational cannabis implementation and opioid deaths were similar (RR = 0.81; 95% CrI = 0.75, 0.88). Recreational cannabis laws allowing dispensary sales was associated with consistent reductions in opioid- (RR = 0.83; 95% CrI = 0.76, 0.91), benzodiazepine- (RR = 0.79; 95% CrI = 0.68, 0.92), and opioid+benzodiazepine-related poisonings (RR = 0.83; 95% CrI = 0.70, 0.98).

Conclusions: Implementation of medical cannabis laws was associated with higher rates of opioid- and benzodiazepine-related deaths, whereas laws permitting broader cannabis access, including implementation of recreational cannabis laws and medical and recreational dispensaries, were associated with lower rates. The estimated effects of the expanded availability of cannabis seem dependent on the type of law implemented and its provisions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid* / poisoning
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Benzodiazepines* / poisoning
  • Cannabis
  • Drug Overdose* / mortality
  • Humans
  • Legislation, Drug
  • Medical Marijuana*
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Benzodiazepines