Legal Cannabis Means Fewer Opioid Deaths

It has been 15 years since the advent of medical marijuana in the United States. A new study published by JAMA Internal Medicine sought to determine the effect the availability of legal medical marijuana has on the rate of opioid overdoses in states where patients have access to medical marijuana.

As supporters of medical marijuana may have guessed, the effect has been positive. States where patients may choose to use medical marijuana annually have a 24.8 percent lower mean opioid overdose mortality rate. Fewer people die of opioid overdoses when marijuana is an option.

According to the study’s abstract, the study was important because opioid overdose deaths continue to rise in the United States as opioids are often prescribed to treat chronic pain. Marijuana could prove to be a safer analgesic by lowering the mortality rate of painkiller overdoses. The study examined death certificate data in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010. In 1999, there were three states with laws allowing medical marijuana, and 10 more states adopted laws between 1999 and 2010.

Ultimately, the study determined that states with medical marijuana saw 24.8 percent fewer overdose deaths from opioid painkillers per a population of 100,000 than states where marijuana is still illegal. The study concluded that medical marijuana may be associated with a significant decrease in painkiller overdose deaths. Furthermore, the study showed that the average may increase over time.

While medical marijuana states are seeing fewer painkiller overdoses than prohibition states, the overall trend for America is a rising rate of opioid abuse, according to Sean Williams in the Motley Fool. According to a clinical review Williams cited, hydrocodone, aka Vicodin, sales have increased by 244 percent between 1997 and 2006. Sales for oxycodone, aka Oxycontin, have increased by 732 percent in the same period.

Williams said that medical marijuana could help lower healthcare costs overall. Williams also highlighted that in the last 50 years, healthcare inflation in America is now at a record low. Between the 1970s and mid-1990s, the inflation rate ranged from four to 12 percent a year, but between July 2012 and July 2013, inflation was only one percent.

Despite lower inflation, Williams pointed out that the biggest money pit for healthcare insurers is made by opioid abusers. Whereas non-opioid abusers only cost insurers about $1,800 annually, opioid abusers cost an average of $16,000. Opioid abusers tend to make more emergency room visits, receive more mental health evaluations and enter substance-abuse treatment programs, all of which cost more money.

As JAMA’s study pointed how medical marijuana states have 24.8 percent fewer deaths from opioids, Williams said this could translate into huge savings for the healthcare industry, so long as nothing happens to reverse the trend. Williams made note that marijuana is still schedule I and illegal at the federal level, so anything can happen. But with studies such as this highlighting the benefits of medical marijuana, the arguments for ending prohibition continue to get stronger.

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