Opioid Painkiller Deaths Lower in States with Legal Medical Marijuana?

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News Item

A recent study by Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health found that the annual number of deaths from prescription overdoses from drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone+acetaminophen), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone was lower by about 25 percent on average over the period 1999 through 2010.

To highlight the growing problem, each day in the United States 46 people die from an overdose of prescription painkillers, and health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions in 2012, enough for each American adult to have their own bottle of prescription narcotic pills (source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Is there a direct causal link between increased medical marijuana use and the reduction in deaths from prescription narcotics? According to study co-author Colleen Barry, a health policy researcher at the School, the difference is quite striking and became visible the year after medical marijuana was accepted in each state, according to Newsweek.

The study was published on August 25th, 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Researchers hypothesized that in states where medical marijuana is prescribed, patients could choose it to treat pain either solely or in conjunction with prescription painkillers, the latter enabling a lower dose of the narcotics to reduce risk.

But Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at national nonprofit addition treatment agency Phoenix House, says that the immediate reduction in overdose deaths is highly unlikely attributable to widespread use of medical marijuana because it simply isn’t widely prescribed.

Analysis

Although Dr. Kolodny has a good point in regards to the lack of widespread medical marijuana prescribing, he misses the point that many access points for medical marijuana do not involve a traditional prescription such as would be written for a pharmaceutical drug. The existence alone of a sanctioned medical marijuana program at the state level, depending on the details and implementation of the legislation, means that patients will access the medicine through many channels, including dispensaries, other patients, marijuana growers, and themselves via growing their own.

There also appears to be evidence of a synergistic effect when cannabinoids and opioids are used together in low doses. What this means is that the potential of cannabinoids to reduce or eliminate the use of narcotic-based painkillers is promising and should not be rejected out of hand. Studies such as the subject of this article are clearly pointing the way to solutions to this growing global tragedy of death-by-prescription.

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