New Study Suggests Medical Cannabis Prevents Painkiller-Related Deaths

Marcus Bachhuber, an internist and clinical scholar at the Philadelphia V.A. Medical Center, recently wrote an article for the New York Times about a study he conducted with colleagues regarding opioid-related deaths in the U.S. from 1999 to 2010.

The findings, published on Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine, propose that medical cannabis laws have decreased opioid painkiller overdoses and deaths. In recent years, a dramatic spike in overdoses and deaths associated with opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin have caused the medical community to question their prolonged use. Severe or chronic pain is the most common condition reported among people using opioids.

Buchhuber and his associates compared the rates of prescription painkiller deaths in states before and after the enactment of medical cannabis laws. Using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention compiled death certificates, they discovered that the rate of opioid deaths increased nationwide from 1999 to 2010, but in states allowing medical marijuana there was a 25 percent lower annual rate. In 2010, states with a medical cannabis law had approximately 1,700 fewer painkiller-related deaths than before the laws were enacted.

Severe or chronic pain is the most common condition reported among people using opioids.

Bachhuber said the next step is to figure out how and why medical cannabis laws are reducing opioid overdose deaths. He believes there are two possibilities:

  1. People are replacing opioids with cannabis for pain treatment.
  2. People addicted to or misusing opioids are changing their behavior if cannabis is legally available.

Cannabis and opioids stimulate a common receptor in the brain’s reward pathways, according to Bachhuber, but it is unknown whether individuals who abuse opioids would choose legal marijuana instead.