An intriguing new study is showing a strong correlation between cannabis use and a large reduction in workplace fatalities, in states with legalized medical marijuana. Since 1996, 29 states have enacted medical cannabis laws which have also attracted many recreational users. This gives years of data on how cannabis has affected users in the workplace. In the 2018 study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy and titled “Medical marijuana laws and workplace fatalities in the United States,” researchers D. Mark Anderson, Daniel I. Rees, and Erdal Tekin analyzed data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia between 1992 and 2015.
In states with legal cannabis, workplace fatalities went down by an average of 19.5% for workers who were 25 to 44 years old. In states that had medical cannabis laws for at least five years, researchers found a very large, 33.7% reduction for this age group’s workplace fatalities, showing that the reduction grew stronger with time. Interestingly the reduction in workplace-related deaths was only statistically significant for this age group. Those younger or older saw no change.
Rather than being an additional risk factor, as many businesses have worried about with the legalization of cannabis, medical cannabis laws are somehow protecting workers from the higher fatality rates we see in states without legal medical or recreational marijuana.
“I think the fact that the effects show up for young adults only was pretty interesting and consistent with some of our other research on medical marijuana laws,” D. Mark Anderson, Ph.D., one of the principal researchers, told Leafly. “We find that it is generally young adults who are affected by these laws.”
The research shows a clear correlation, but researchers say they’re still unsure as to how exactly this reduction works. “We were actually unable to pin down the precise mechanism through which medical marijuana laws affected workplace fatalities,” Anderson told Leafly. “At the end of the day, we could only speculate as to why these laws may have affected workplace events.”
It’s possible that the reduction is happening because people are switching to cannabis from alcohol and other drugs. A variety of other studies provide evidence that point in that direction. In one study, cannabis led to a reduction in drinking and traffic fatalities among young adults, which is a major contributor to workplace deaths. Another study concluded that medical cannabis laws led to a reduction in suicide rates among young adults. Cannabis could also be leading to better pain management for people who would otherwise take opioids and could potentially overdose on them. This is interesting because Anderson’s study showed an even greater reduction in workplace deaths in states where pain is a qualifying condition to receive cannabis.
Why didn’t teens also see a benefit in the reduction in workplace-related deaths? Well, put simply, a growing body of evidence shows that medical marijuana doesn’t lead to increased use for teens. As Anderson explained, “there is now a fairly large literature showing that medical marijuana laws do not create spillovers in the recreational market for teens.”
The one big caveat, of course, is whether cannabis itself improves workplace safety, or whether its correlation with a decrease in other drug usage is the cause. As Anderson says, “further investigation is required to determine whether this result is attributable to reductions in the consumption of alcohol and other substances that impair cognitive function, memory, and motor skills.”