States With Legal Medical Marijuana Have Fewer Opioid Related Deaths, Study Finds

Study Suggests Cannabis May Prevent Painkiller Dependency and Overdoses

It’s no secret that the opioid crisis has wreaked havoc on the United States. Even still, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is alarming: 10.3 million people misused prescription opioids in 2018, and it is estimated that more than 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses each day.

The problem has taken so many lives that the HHS declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency.

Critics of marijuana have always called it a gateway drug. You’ve heard it all, we’re sure: If you smoke pot, you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of meth, heroin, speed, crack, you name it.

But what if marijuana’s presence could limit the use of more harmful drugs, rather than encourage it?

That’s a question raised by a research article that compared the amount of opioid-related deaths in states with and without legalized medical marijuana.

The study is titled “Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010.” It was published in JAMA Internal Medicine and features an analysis conducted by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In the study, researchers consider 13 states that had legalized the use of medical marijuana. (Twenty more states have legalized medical marijuana since the article was published.) These states were compared to counterparts that did not allow citizens to use marijuana as a medical treatment for things like pain relief. Specifically, researches used death certificate data.

Ultimately, the study found that states that legalized medical marijuana in the time period studied, had 25 percent fewer prescription drug overdose deaths than states that did not legalize it.

This may not be shocking to those who view or use marijuana as a pain reliever, and possibly opt to use it instead of prescription painkillers. Colleen L. Barry, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School and senior author of the study, explained:

“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.”

As more states begin to legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, more researchers are looking at the physical and societal effects that marijuana will have. The debate still rages on as to whether cannabis is worsening the opioid crisis or helping to solve it.

To learn about opioid overdoses and how to respond to one, read the Government of Canada’s opioid overdose information page.