United States marijuana legalization and opioid mortality trends before and during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic





marijuana medicinal legalization, marijuana recreational legalization, United States opioid mortality epidemic, fentanyl, coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic


Background: To determine if marijuana legalization was associated with reduced opioid mortality.

Study design: The United States (US) opioid mortality trend during the 2010-2019 decade was compared in states and District of Columbia (jurisdictions) that had implemented marijuana legalization with states that had not. Acceleration of opioid mortality during 2020, the first year of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, was also compared in recreational and medicinal-only legalizing jurisdictions.

Methods: Joinpoint methodology was applied to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER data. Trends in legalizing jurisdictions were cumulative aggregates.

Results: The overall opioid and fentanyl death rates and the percentage of opioid deaths due to fentanyl increased more during 2010-2019 in jurisdictions that legalized marijuana than in those that did not (pairwise comparison p = 0.007, 0.05, and 0.006, respectively). By 2019, the all-opioid and fentanyl death rates were 44 and 50 percent greater in the legalizing than in the nonlegalizing jurisdictions, respectively. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, jurisdictions that implemented recreational marijuana legalization before 2019 had significantly greater increases in both overall opioid and fentanyl death rates than jurisdictions with medicinal-only legalization. For all-opioids, the mean (95 percent confidence interval) 2019-to-2020 increases were 46.5 percent (36.6, 56.3 percent) and 29.1 percent (20.2, 37.9 percent), respectively (p = 0.02). For fentanyl, they were 115.6 percent (80.2, 151.6 percent) and 55.4 percent (31.6, 79.2 percent), respectively (p = 0.01).

Conclusions: During the past decade, marijuana legalization in the US was associated at the jurisdiction level with a greater acceleration in opioid death rate. An even greater increase in opioid mortality occurred in recreational-legalizing jurisdictions with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marijuana legalization is correlated with worsening of the US opioid epidemic.

Author Biographies

Archie Bleyer, MD

Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon; University of Texas McGovern Medical School, Houston, Texas

Brian Barnes, LCSW, MAC, CADC III

St. Charles Healthcare System, Bend, Oregon; PhD Candidate, Integral and Transpersonal Psychology, California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco, California

Kenneth Finn, MD

Springs Rehabilitation, Colorado Springs, Colorado


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How to Cite

Bleyer, A., B. Barnes, and K. Finn. “United States Marijuana Legalization and Opioid Mortality Trends before and During the First Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic”. Journal of Opioid Management, vol. 20, no. 2, Apr. 2024, pp. 119-32, doi:10.5055/jom.0829.