The marijuana movement has witnessed some incredible advances in a relatively short period of time.
Less than two decades ago not a single state allowed medical marijuana to be sold legally, and the idea of recreational marijuana being sold would have been practically unimaginable. Today, though, nearly two-dozen states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, and four states (plus Washington, D.C.) are acting as "experiments" for the rest of the nation by legalizing marijuana use across the board.
Legalization would potentially hold a number of perks for consumers, businesses, and local and state governments.
For the consumer, recreational legalization represents freedom, while for sicker individuals marijuana embodies a therapy that could help alleviate their chronic or terminal symptoms. Legal marijuana businesses would prefer to see the drug legalized as it would remove a big cloud of uncertainty regarding their relationship with the banking industry, and it could solidify the long-term staying power of marijuana businesses. Finally, for local and state governments, the legalization of marijuana presents a substantial tax revenue-generating opportunity. For underfunded budgets this could be a perfect way to fill in some of those gaps, or at worst help throw extra resources at education.
Marijuana's major challenges
But, marijuana faces a laundry list of challenges as well that could prevent any sort of swift change to the federal law, which currently views marijuana as having no medical benefits (and more importantly as illegal).
At the forefront of those challenges is the safety of marijuana use over the long-term. Before lawmakers even consider the idea of legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana on a federal level, they're going to want to make sure that every last "T" is crossed and "I" is dotted when it comes to the clinical safety of this drug.
Of course, this also presents a problem. Over the prior decades marijuana studies were conducted, but they primarily focused on the adverse effects of the drug on a person's memory or cognitive abilities. It's left researchers and lawmakers with a lot of data to suggest marijuana is a dangerous drug, and very little evidence to say otherwise. In recent years, researchers have begun looking at the various ways marijuana may be able to help treat select diseases and disorders, but a full safety profile of the drug will take some time to mature.
Another concern that looms just as large as marijuana's safety profile is what it might do to cities and states in which it's legalized. While speaking in Jamaica in April, President Obama had this to say concerning the future of marijuana:
"Right now, that is not federal policy, and I do not foresee, any time soon, Congress changing the law at a national basis. But I do think that if there are states that show that they are not suddenly a magnet for additional crime, that they have a strong enough public health infrastructure to push against the potential for increased addiction, then it's conceivable that it will spur on a national debate."
In short, President Obama and lawmakers are concerned about the safety of the drug on the health of individual users, as well as if it might spur additional crime or other problems.
This study could be a big win for marijuana supporters
However, a new study released this month by the University of California-Irvine and the RAND Corporation, and published via the National Bureau of Economic Research, suggests that medical marijuana may already be saving countless lives.
For their study, RAND and UCI researchers planned to examine what, if any, correlation existed between opioid addiction that led to fatal overdoses (opioids are commonly used as prescription painkillers) and states where legal medical marijuana shops were open for business.
Within the United States more than 16,000 people died from opioid-based overdoses in 2013 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest statistics. But RAND and UCI's study demonstrates that states with legal medical marijuana shops can possibly reduce these figures in a meaningful way.
Specifically, researchers found that in the 18 states where medical marijuana was legalized and shops were open for business, there was a 16% reduction in opioid-related deaths and a 28% reduction in opioid-related treatment admissions. Interestingly, in the six states where medical marijuana prescriptions could be written by doctors but no legal medical marijuana shops were open, there was no evidence of a reduction in opioid-related deaths or abuse treatment admissions.
Furthermore, the RAND and UCI study discovered that there was no decline in the number of legal opioid prescriptions written by physicians in the aforementioned 18 states that have legal marijuana shops. What this implies is that the risk of reduction in opioid-related death is probably coming from consumers who were taking illegal opioid painkillers, and who have since switched to legal medical marijuana.
What this study suggests is that medical marijuana has the potential to save lives by removing the dangerous addiction factor associated with opioid therapies. To be clear, marijuana has addictive qualities of its own, but the chances of overdosing from marijuana use are very, very low. Marijuana supporters can only hope that regulators see studies like this and make the decision to change the current federal policy toward marijuana.
Likewise, studies like this could give cannabinoid-based drug developers a little extra pep in their step as it helps to validate the relative safety of marijuana compared to other classes of drugs on the market.
Don't hold your breath
Although the RAND/UCI study is intriguing and it clearly represents a tangible benefit that lawmakers can grasp, the prospect of near-term change still seems minimal at best.
As a reminder, this study is just one data point of many that will be needed to change the mind of lawmakers. Until we have sufficient clinical evidence that marijuana is safe for the user, and that it isn't spurring crime in the cities in which it's legalized, the marijuana debate in Congress will probably remain at a standstill. This means ongoing concerns about the long-term survival of the marijuana industry serve as all the more reason why investors would be wise to just keep their feet firmly planted on the sidelines.