Kansas Study Looks At Effects Of Legalizing Medical Marijuana

Sep 29, 2015

A new study says if Kansas legalized marijuana for broad medical use, marijuana-related car collisions and accidental ingestion hospitalizations likely would increase, but crime and illegal consumption would not.
Credit Dave Ranney / Heartland Health Monitor

If Kansas legalized marijuana for broad medical use, marijuana-related car collisions and accidental ingestion hospitalizations likely would increase but crime and illegal consumption would not.

Those are the findings of a nearly yearlong study of other states that legalized marijuana for medicinal use done by the Kansas Health Institute, a health-policy information and research group based in Topeka, Kansas.

The study did not look at marijuana’s actual health benefits. Senior analyst Tatiana Lin said her team explored that angle but determined there was not enough credible research on it.

“There is some research available for certain conditions, but it’s still inconclusive,” Lin said. “So we felt that the study probably would not be able, at this point, to do in-depth analysis on this issue.”

More than half the states have legalized medical marijuana in some form since California became the first to do so in 1996.  

Kansas lawmakers thus far have been strongly resistant, but advocates keep pressing the issue. Some evidence of cracks in the resistance emerged last session.

The Legislature had its first hearings in three years on broad-based medical marijuana legalization. A narrower bill, which legalized only non-intoxicating hemp oil for treating persistent seizures, became the first medical marijuana measure to be approved by a committee and later passed the House by a wide margin. The Senate took no action on it.

The KHI analysis focused on a broad-based marijuana legalization proposal, Senate Bill 9, and its companion, House Bill 2011.

Those bills would legalize multiple forms of marijuana for people who suffer from any of a dozen conditions, including Crohn’s disease, glaucoma and cancer.

Varied outcomes

Lin and fellow analysts Sarah Hartsig, Shawna Chapman and Sheena Smith studied 14 states that passed similar legislation.

They found that states that legalized medical marijuana experienced a slight uptick in hospitalizations for accidental ingestion, mostly in children under age 6. But that outcome was counterbalanced somewhat by fewer hospitalizations for opioid overdoses in those states, possibly because of chronic pain sufferers who manage their symptoms with cannabis rather than prescription painkillers.

The marijuana ingestions were far less deadly than the opioid overdoses, which claim thousands of lives in the United States every year.

The marijuana-related hospitalizations resulted in no deaths, but Hartsig said poison control centers report breathing problems, heart arrhythmia and cognitive effects from marijuana ingestion.

“While death hasn’t been a direct impact so far, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily harmless,” Hartsig said. “There are still some pretty serious things that can happen.”

The analysts recommended that policymakers consider requiring educational outreach about the dangers of edible marijuana products and childproof packaging if they legalize medical marijuana.

The analysts also found that data from other states showed an increase in driving under the influence of marijuana and marijuana-related vehicle collisions following legalization for medical use, especially in states where medical marijuana is distributed through dispensaries rather than grown at home.

In eight of the 13 states for which data was available, marijuana-related traffic fatalities more than doubled after legalization for medicinal use.

But the analysts cautioned that they could not discount the possibility that police officers in states with legal medical marijuana were on heightened lookout for marijuana use and more apt to test for it following a crash.

Rep. Gail Finney, a Democrat from Wichita who has introduced medical marijuana legalization bills in recent years, said that seems like a logical conclusion. She said she also suspects that even in states with legal medical marijuana, alcohol still causes far more motor vehicle accidents.

From 2006 to 2010, an average of 107 alcohol-related auto accident deaths occurred each year in Kansas, or about 3.7 deaths per 100,000 people. The only state the analysts looked at that saw a comparable number of deaths from marijuana-related crashes in the five years following legalization for medical use was Montana. Rates in the other 12 were significantly lower.

Hartsig and Lin said one troubling trend they found in their analysis was that some people who use medical marijuana in other states are not aware it impairs their ability to drive. Their analysis recommends policymakers consider strong labeling requirements and educational campaigns if Kansas decides to legalize medical marijuana.

Finney said the potential health effects raised in the KHI analysis are manageable and she will continue to promote House Bill 2011 next session.

“I still think we need to consider it,” Finney said. “There are some people that are still suffering with chronic diseases, and the only thing that makes them feel better and benefits their body is marijuana.”

Other health effects

The KHI analysts also studied how legalizing medical marijuana would affect crime and overall consumption of marijuana. There was not enough evidence for them to conclude that crime would likely increase or decrease post-legalization.

In some states there was a correlation between the opening of dispensaries and increased crime rates, but dispensaries were generally located in areas that already had higher crime rates.

The evidence studied was inconclusive regarding whether legalizing medical marijuana leads to an increase in illegal consumption.

The analysts saw some potential for increased use by “at-risk” youth, such as those already in drug treatment. But even that increase depended largely on the level of regulation and enforcement in each medical marijuana program.

Lin presented some preliminary analysis to legislators at last session’s medical marijuana hearing, but the full analysis was not complete at the time.

Finney said the analysts likely will get another chance to testify, because “not a week goes by” without someone asking her about the bill.

“I don’t think that issue is going away,” she said. “Like I’ve said over and over again, I think it’s just a matter of time. Kansas will probably be one of the later states, but I think it’s going to happen.”

Editor’s note: The Kansas Health Institute is the parent organization of KHI News Service, which is editorially independent.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.