A study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, on Monday, found that states that had legalized medical marijuana had seen a 25 percent drop in deaths related to prescription drug overdoses.
According to ABC News, the researchers conducting the study found that because “legalizing medical marijuana makes it more available to chronic pain patients, it provides a potentially less lethal alternative to pain control on a long-term basis.”
The research began in 1999, when only three states legalized medical marijuana, and it lasted up until 2010. Today, it is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
Over the course of the study, the states studied were the ones that allowed access to medical marijuana. The Washington Post reported that those states “had 1,729 fewer overdose deaths in 2010 than would be predicted by trends in states without such laws.”
Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, a physician and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and the lead author of the study, told ABC News that while he did expect to see changes among the states that legalized medical marijuana, he found it “surprising that the difference is so big.”
Bachhuber explained that in his practice, he works with a lot of people with chronic pain, and that sometimes, “people with chronic pain would say only marijuana worked or they tried marijuana as a painkiller and found it worked better than prescription pills.”
The Chair of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego and the Director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Research, Dr. Igor Grant, claimed that patients with chronic pain might benefit from combining opioid painkillers with less toxic medications that also provide pain relief. He referred to this as the “opioid-sparing effect.”
“Physicians have used combination drugs for a long time, such as acetaminophen with an opioid,” said Grant. “By putting several different pain medications together, they are able to reduce the overall opioid dose, and thus decrease the risk of overdose.”
Following an analysis done by researchers at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, Colleen L. Barry, PhD, released a statement saying that in states where medical marijuana was legal, doctors were using it as a replacement for common painkillers that carried a greater risk.
“As our awareness of the addiction and overdose risks associated with use of opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin grows, individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal,” Barry said.
“It suggests the potential for many lives to be saved,” said Barry, who pointed out that also there is still a lot that is not known about how well of a job medical marijuana does for people with chronic pain, medical marijuana is different because it is “not susceptible to unintentional overdose.”
“There’s a lot of rethinking about relative harms and relative benefits right now,” Barry said.