A new study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that one way to deal with the sharp rise in fatal prescription painkiller overdoses is to liberalize marijuana laws. The study, led by Dr. Marcus Bachhuber at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, looked at medical marijuana laws and overdose deaths in all 50 states; the 13 that legalized medical marijuana between 1999 and 2010 saw a 25 percent drop in prescription pill fatalities. Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws.
Bachhuber acknowledges that his study doesn't conclusively prove that pot lowers painkiller deaths, but says that "based on what we know, we think it could be due to safer treatment of chronic pain." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 55 percent of fatal drug overdoses in 2011 were from prescription medications, three-quarters of those opioid analgesics like morphine and oxycodone. Six years after medical marijuana was allowed in a state, opiate-related fatal overdoes were down 33 percent, the new report found.
In a commentary accompanying the article, Dr. Mark S. Brown and Marie J. Hayes say that the report's "striking implication" is that medical marijuana laws "may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates" of fatal opiate-related suicides. "If true, this finding upsets the apple cart of conventional wisdom regarding the public health implications of marijuana legalizations and medicinal usefulness," they add.
Bachhuber is a little more circumspect. "It can be challenging for people to control chronic pain, so I think the more options we have the better," he says. "But I think it's important, of course, to weigh the risks and benefits of medical marijuana."