America has been trying and failing to forcibly prevent people from using their drugs of choice since before Prohibition. A new study provides the latest evidence of a drug epidemic stemmed by the opposite approach.

Colorado's marijuana legalization coincided with a reversal of a long-standing rise in opioid-related deaths, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. Having climbed consistently since 2000, the toll has fallen 6 percent since legal cannabis sales began in 2014, inviting the suspicion that one far less dangerous drug is substituting for the other.

The researchers caution that their findings are preliminary given the novelty of legalization. They also note that marijuana, which carries no risk of fatal overdose, may bring other perils, such as car accidents. And Colorado officials told the Denver Post that other factors, including recently expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone, may be playing an important role.

But after controlling for opioid policy changes and examining the data in neighboring states that didn't unleash recreational marijuana, the researchers believe they can credit legal cannabis with saving about eight Coloradans a year. Moreover, many other studies have supported similar conclusions, demonstrating marijuana's efficacy in treating pain and its tendency to replace some opioid use — precisely contrary to the "gateway drug" theory long propounded by drug warriors.

There has certainly been more than enough research to advise against the return to reefer madness being advocated by the nation's chief marijuana-phobe, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as the counterproductive slow-walking of California's legalization in places as diverse as Fresno and San Francisco. Public policy should distinguish among drugs based on objective measures of risk, not subjective judgments of those using them.

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