New analysis reveals that in U.S. states where medical marijuana has been legalized, deaths from opioid overdoses have decreased by as much as 25%, according to JAMA Internal Medicine, the journal of the American Medical Association.
Scientists looked at medicinal cannabis laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010, and during that period, 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place.
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Today the drug is legal, either for medical or recreational purposes, in 23 states.
“We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law, ” the lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, told CNN.
In 2010 alone, marijuana appears to have saved 1, 700 lives in states which permit its medicinal use, based on the number of overdose deaths that would have been expected before legalization, according to the study.
“Most of the discussion on medical marijuana has been about its effect on individuals in terms of reducing pain or other symptoms, ” Dr. Bachhuber said in an email to Reuters. “The unique contribution of our study is the finding that medical marijuana laws and policies may have a broader impact on public health.”
“It can be challenging for people to control chronic pain, so I think the more options we have, the better, ” added Dr. Bachhuber, who has treated many chronic pain patients as a primary care doctor at Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said. “But I think it’s important, of course, to weigh the risks and benefits of medical marijuana.”
California, Oregon and Washington first legalized medical marijuana before 1999, with 10 more following suit between then and 2010, the time period of the analysis. Another 10 states and Washington, D.C. adopted similar laws since 2010.
For the study, Dr. Bachhuber and his colleagues used state-level death certificate data for all 50 states between 1999 and 2010.
In states with a medical marijuana law, overdose deaths from opioids like morphine, oxycodone and heroin decreased by an average of 20% after one year, 25% after two years, and up to 33% by years five and six, compared to what would have been expected, according to the results published in JAMA.
At the same time, opioid overdose deaths across the U.S. have increased from 4, 030 in 1999 to 16, 651 in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Three of every four of those deaths involved prescription pain medications.