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Medical Cannabis Linked to Decline in Painkiller Overdoses

Three pill bottles are filled with opioids often prescribed for pain management despite many overdoses/year. A 4th bottle contains a safer option, marijuana.


Medical Cannabis Linked to Decline in Painkiller Overdoses

According to a study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, states with medical cannabis laws saw a significantly lower increase in fatal overdoses related to opioid painkillers such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percoset. The study suggests that marijuana, which is far less harmful and addictive than such drugs, may be a much safer treatment for patients suffering from chronic pain.

Compiling death certificate data from all 50 states for the years 1999-2010, the study found that while overdoses from opioid painkillers increased across the board for those years, the 13 states with medical cannabis laws (including California, Oregon and Washington, which had laws in place prior to the study’s 1999 beginning) saw an average of 24.8 percent fewer such deaths.

Speaking in Newsweek, one of the study’s co-authors, Colleen Barry, Ph.D., M.P.P., said that “the difference was quite striking” and that the shift was clearly visible within one year of each states’ legalization of cannabis for medical use.

Prescriptions for opioid painkillers have seen a dramatic increase over roughly the same time period, with the percentage of chronic pain patients prescribed such drugs nearly doubling from 11 to 20 percent. By 2008, “the number of overdose deaths attributable to prescription drugs exceeded those of cocaine and heroin combined,” according to another study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomburg School of Public Health.

Meanwhile, other studies such as the “Roques Report” commissioned by the French Ministry of Health have found that marijuana is considerably safer than opiates. The report, published in 1998, compared the risks of various drugs including cannabis and opiates in categories such as physical and psychological dependency, overall toxicity and social hazards. Across the board, cannabis was found to be far less harmful than opiates.

Yet another study, published in 2012 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, found that cannabis, when used as a substitute or adjunct for opioid painkillers, provides greater cumulative relief and can even mitigate or eliminate such harmful effects as opiate dependency and increasing tolerance.

Although optimistic about marijuana’s ability to reduce opioid overdoses, the authors of the newest study on the subject did caution that the statistics merely show a correlation and noted that there may be other factors at work. Further research is required, but if the study’s findings can be corroborated by additional evidence, medical cannabis may provide a powerful tool in the effort to reduce opioid dependency and abuse.

What do you think? Could cannabis reduce the need for painkillers? Tell us in the comments below.

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