Medical Marijuana States See 24.8% Drop in Opioid Painkiller Deaths

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Source: “It’s Official: State Trying to Destroy Medical Pot Law,” thestranger.com, Oct. 23, 2013

A new study shows that states with legalized medical marijuana have a 24.8% lower annual rate of overdose deaths from opioids, including prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, and street opiates such as heroin. The study, “Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010,” was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The researchers tracked 13 US states that had legalized medical marijuana by 2010, and found that each year after implementation of laws legalizing medical marijuana, the association with lowered rates of opioid overdoses strengthened. Lethal opioid overdose rates were reduced by 19.9% one year after legalization of medical marijuana, and grew to 33.3% after six years. According to the study, in the year 2010, that translated into 1,729 fewer opioid overdose deaths across the states where medical marijuana was legal.

Lead author Marcus Bachhuber, MD, told Reuters Health that “most of the discussion on medical marijuana has been about its effect on individuals in terms of reducing pain or other symptoms. The unique contribution of our study is the finding that medical marijuana laws and policies may have a broader impact on public health.”

Commenting on the study, opiate abuse researchers Dr. Mark Brown and Marie Hayes stated that the “implication is that medical marijuana laws, when implemented, may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates of nonintentional opioid-analgesic-related deaths.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 46 people die every day in the United States from prescription opiate overdoses.

However, some doctors are urging caution in interpreting the study results. Dr. Bradley Flansbaum, a physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, states that “there are so many things going on in states, whether it be cultural or through laws, it’s hard to say what’s the effect of the medical marijuana law versus everything else that’s happening… You don’t know what causes what. The data is not that clean.”

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. As of Aug. 2014, three additional states have legislation pending to legalize medical marijuana. Under US federal law, marijuana remains an illegal Schedule I controlled substance.

Sources:

Paul Armentano, “JAMA: Medical Cannabis States Possess Lower Rates of Opiate Induced Fatalities,” norml.org, Aug. 25, 2014

Marcus A. Bachhuber, MD, Brendan Saloner, PhD, Chinazo O. Cunningham, MD, MS, and Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, “Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010,” JAMA Internal Medicine, Aug. 25, 2014

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Opioid Painkiller Prescribing,” cdc.gov (accessed Aug. 27, 2014)

Katie Delach, “Lower Opioid Overdose Death Rates Associated with State Medical Marijuana Laws,” eurekalert.org, Aug. 25, 2014

Kathryn Doyle, “Prescription Painkiller Deaths Fall in Medical Marijuana States,” reuters.com, Aug. 25, 2014

Melissa Healy, “Medical Marijuana Could Reduce Painkiller Abuse, Study Says,” latimes.com, Aug. 25, 2014