Overdose Death Rates Drop in States with Medical Marijuana Laws

Overdose Death Rates Drop in States with Medical Marijuana Laws

Overdose death rates from prescription opioid painkillers and illicit drugs such as heroin have declined significantly in states with medical marijuana laws, according to controversial new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Critics immediately attacked the study as flawed, while supporters of medical marijuana say it adds to the growing body of evidence that cannabis is a safer and more effective analgesic than opioids.

bigstock-The-words-medical-marijuana-su-17121803Researchers studied death certificate data from13 states where medical marijuana was legal between 1999 and 2010. They found those states had nearly a 25% lower death rate from opiates than states without such laws.

In 2010, that translated to about 1,729 fewer deaths than expected.

The association with lower overdose death rates grew stronger over time, with states reporting an average of 33% fewer deaths by the 6th year that medical marijuana was legal.

“Although evidence for the analgesic properties of cannabis is limited, it may provide analgesia for some individuals. In addition, patients already receiving opioid analgesics who start medical cannabis treatment may experience improved analgesia and decrease their opioid dose, thus potentially decreasing their dose-dependent risk of overdose,” said lead author Marcus A. Bachhuber, MD, of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“If the relationship between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality is substantiated in further work, enactment of laws to allow for use of medical cannabis may be advocated as part of a comprehensive package of policies to reduce the population risk of opioid analgesics.”

Overdose death rates from prescription opioids have risen dramatically in the U.S. to nearly 17,000 deaths annually or 46 people per day, according to government estimates. Overdose deaths are often cited by health officials, government regulators and politicians as a reason to restrict access to opioid pain medicines.

“The potential protective role of medical marijuana in opioid analgesic-associated mortality and its implication for public policy is a fruitful area for future work,” wrote Marie Hayes, PhD, of the University of Maine and Mark Brown, MD, of the Eastern Maine Medical Center in a commentary also published in JAMA.

“If the decline in opioid analgesic-related overdose deaths is explained, as claimed by the authors, by increased access to medical marijuana as an adjuvant medication for patients taking prescription opioids, does this mean that marijuana provides improved pain control that decreases opioid dosing to safer levels?”

But critics said the study doesn’t prove that marijuana is safer or more effective than opioids, and relies on faulty data.

“Much more research must be done before making the sweeping conclusion that MMLs (medical marijuana laws) reduce opiate overdose deaths. Though that connection may be intrinsically appealing – some could view the idea that people might use a milder drug versus an opiate as an improvement – too many uncertainties lie in this JAMA analysis,” said Kevin Sabet, PhD, director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute.

Sabet points out that while opiate death rates did decline in states with medical marijuana laws, their death rates were still higher than in states where marijuana is illegal.

As the study authors conceded, the raw data showed that medical marijuana states had higher rates of opiate deaths. When the authors introduced four possible reasons for this, the rate completely flipped. This is a major red-flag, signifying that possibly one of those four reasons alone may have influenced the death rate, and could be a sign of what researchers call a ‘spurious relationship’ between MMLs and death rates,” Sabet wrote in an email to National Pain Report..

A recent online survey of readers by National Pain Report found that medical marijuana worked better than prescription drugs such as Lyrica and Cymbalta in relieving pain and other symptoms caused by fibromyalgia.

Sixty-two percent who have tried cannabis said it was very effective at treating their fibromyalgia symptoms. Another 33% said it helped a little and only 5% said it did not help at all.

Authored by: Pat Anson, Editor

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Brenda Alice at 10:38 pm

    I would like to know how many deaths were from patients prescribed the medication vs ones from the street corner. That is important to know so the DEA would go after the dealers and leave patients, specialists and pharmacies alone. Discrimination is encouraged by the Tennessee governor who has decided to target pain patients that require long term medication and treatment. Marijuana is illegal here but if it wasn’t I could not afford to buy it on disability. I so wish the discrimination will end. Perhaps when they are forced into a condition that we have no choice over treatment may change. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Johnna Stahl at 7:26 am

    Cannabis works, but many state medical marijuana programs do not. If you are a pain patient thinking about moving to a state that has a program, do your research first. And keep in mind that MMJ is not covered by any insurance — the costs, not only for the medicine but also for renewals, are very steep, especially for pain patients.

    But the reason thousands and thousands of pain patients are paying out the nose to access medical cannabis is — and excuse me for being redundant — because it works.

    Free the leaf.

  3. Johnna Stahl at 7:16 am

    “The Institute is led by Kevin A. Sabet, PhD, a drug policy practitioner who has served in The White House under Presidents Clinton and Bush, and most recently as Senior Drug Policy Advisor for President Obama’s drug czar. Dr. Sabet is a doctorate in public policy analysis…”

    Wow, a doctorate in public policy, and this guy is supposed to be an expert? An expert in what? He’s not even a medical doctor, nor does he have any kind of scientific background. He’s just a paid hack.

    When NPR gives credibility to Sabet, it puts its own credibility in jeopardy.

  4. Johnna Stahl at 7:00 am

    “Overdose deaths are often cited by health officials, government regulators and politicians as a reason to restrict access to opioid pain medicines.”

    Well, if that’s true, then it’s past time to restrict access to guns, since the number of suicides in 2010 was 38,364 — more than double that of deaths attributed to prescription painkillers. And since about 50% used a firearm as their method — still more deaths than prescription drugs — then why hasn’t the government restricted access to guns?

    Because Americans can have all the guns they want without any restrictions whatsoever, but patients who are in pain have to suffer.

    In 2009, the death-by-suicide figure was 36,909, and the increase in 2010 could easily be attributed to the actions of the DEA and the criminalization of pain patients. When statistics are available for more current years, tragically, I am sure you will see like increases.

    The DEA doesn’t save us from drugs, as their drug war has been a complete failure. No, the DEA actually CAUSES death and destruction wherever it operates. Perhaps this agency should be put on the long list of war criminals in the U.S.

  5. Kim Miller at 6:30 pm

    It does not mystify me that the effects of marijuana would enhance, and perhaps even extend the effects of opioids, thus lessening the the amount the patient requires to relieve pain symptoms. There may even be a point at which a patient could find they no longer feel they need the opioids at all to relieve pain in diseases such as Fibromyalgia and WED (formerly known as Restless Legs Syndrome) where the conditions are 24/7 conditions

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  6. BossIlluminati at 4:16 pm

    the greatest plant in the universe is almost free, LET FREEDOM RING! 13

    1000s of my friends and family have grown 30-99 plants for 20 years, thanks for keeping prices high and NORCAL wealthy…#1 crop in cali = $15 Billion Untaxed…

    “any doctor against marijuana is a doctor of death” – cali secret 420

    from 0 states to half the country, from low 20% approval to almost 70%, cali runs this planet by 2 decades, time to tie marijuana to the 2014, 2016 elections, out with the old, in with the new

    20 years behind us southern states and NEW YORK (CBD = Can’t Be Done), sad and scary….nobody denies freedoms like the south, nobody…the top ten incarcerators on the planet are southern states and more blacks are in prison then were slaves before the civil war…even if marijuana reforms did pass the republiCANTS in charge would deny you all your freedoms, centuries of practice…no matter though, we never planned on getting your backwards brethren from day one, half the country already but not one southern state, lol…not 1….the new generations are taking over in the south and they are nothing like their freedom denying parents, let’s ride…

    Deaths by Alcohol: Millions
    Deaths by Tobacco: Millions

    Deaths by Prescription Drugs: Quadrupled in last decade
    
Deaths by Guns: Millions
    
Deaths by the food we are fed: Millions
    
Deaths by Marijuana: 0, ever…they are killing my American family while denying freedom

    love and freedom forever

    AMERICA’S WAR ON DRUGS IS A WAR ON AMERICANS! 33