Study Shows Reduction In Opioid Overdoses By 25% In States Which Have Legalized Medical Marijuana

A major problem with narcotic pain medications is the risk of overdose. This problem has led to the DEA announcing last week that hydrocodone combination pain medications such as Norco and Vicodin are being reclassified as Schedule II narcotics, with additional restrictions being placed upon prescribing them. Any measures to help control chronic pain while reducing the incidence of overdose would certainly be welcome. The August 25, 2014 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine presents a study of states which have legalized medical marijuana, showing a reduction in opioid overdoses by almost 25 percent:

Three states (California, Oregon, and Washington) had medical cannabis laws effective prior to 1999. Ten states (Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont) enacted medical cannabis laws between 1999 and 2010. States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate (95% CI, −37.5% to −9.5%; P = .003) compared with states without medical cannabis laws. Examination of the association between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in each year after implementation of the law showed that such laws were associated with a lower rate of overdose mortality that generally strengthened over time…

The study did not indicate the cause of this association. It is speculated that some people with chronic pain might use less opioid when medical marijuana is available. More study is needed to confirm this, but considering the problems faced with opioid overdoses, marijuana should be considered as an alternative. At very least, when considering any potential adverse consequences to legalization of medical marijuana, it must be kept in mind that the currently used medications for chronic pain do have a serious potential for adverse effects themselves.

Marijuana is now classified as a Schedule I drug which prevents prescribing it. (In states where medical marijuana is legal, the change in the law protects those using it from prosecution but marijuana still cannot be prescribed). Many have already questioned the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug as it appears to show less risk of problems from overdose compared to current Schedule II and Schedule III drugs. This study suggests that marijuana might also help protect against some of the adverse effects of narcotics.

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