Legalizing Medical Marijuana Means Fewer Painkiller Deaths, Statistics Reveal

Could marijuana be a safer alternative to prescription painkillers? It's a worthwhile question to ask on the heels of a new study published by JAMA Internal Medicine Monday, which found something interesting: medical marijuana states have fewer deaths by opioid overdose than states in which the drug isn't legal. The study is the result of long-term research by a University of Pennsylvania team, using data from 1999 to 2010, and it may shine some light on a significant aspect of marijuana law — how its availability can help sick people feel better without the use of heavier-duty painkillers.

It's important to note that it's risky to speculate or draw too many conclusions. The familiar refrain of "correlation is not causation" applies here, just like anywhere. There's no way to know for certain whether marijuana on its own would be able to effectively replace some of these more-dangerous painkillers, or whether — as the study's lead author Marcus Bachhuber alluded to — its benefit is being felt as a supplement to those harder pharmaceutical drugs.

Bachhuber explained that possibility in a release Tuesday, alongside the revealing of the study's results.

... people already taking opioids for pain may supplement with medical marijuana and be able to lower their painkiller dose, thus lowering their risk of overdose.
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Really, it makes perfect sense — if you've got some weed on hand, maybe you can get away with one pain pill instead of two, or two instead of three — easing whatever the demands of your pain's intensity are.

But whatever the precise cause, here's the bottom line: Overall, the states which allow for legal, medicinal marijuana are doing much better with these kinds of overdose deaths. In fact, they're seeing a whopping 25 percent lower rate of them than marijuana-free states are.

Furthermore, as Quartz details, the study found that people get less likely to overdose on opioids the longer their state has had medical marijuana available. While the reduction in overdose deaths was just 20 percent on average in the first year of medicinal legalization, after five years it swells to an average of 34 percent.

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Of course, there are important considerations here that merit further research. The ways in which drugs can interact with each other while inside the human body is always an important safety issue — so, if medical marijuana is being used as a supplemental drug along with pharmaceutical painkillers in any kind of widespread way, it's important to study any possible adverse effects that could arise.

And obviously, there's a common-sense concern that smoking anything through your lungs probably isn't great for you — it's easier and less caustic to responsibly consume edible marijuana, at the very least.

But in simplest terms, whatever the complications, we can now say this much: if your state has embraced cannabis as a medicinal drug, residents are less likely to die from too much... Percocet, let's say.

This isn't the first time that medicinal marijuana has shown positive outcomes for suffering patients. In particular, medicinal marijuana has proven to be a hugely useful drug in treating cancer-related pain, also helping to restore appetite throughout the grueling process of chemotherapy.

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