Medical MJAccording to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fatal overdoses of prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.  Non-fatal overdoses are rampant, as well.  The government estimates the number of people abusing painkillers in the United States is about 2.1 million, and estimates of the number worldwide range from 26.4 million to 36 million.

In the midst of this prescription painkiller abuse epidemic, there is some good news. The thirteen states that legalized medical marijuana between 1999 and 2010 have seen a 25 percent decrease in deaths from painkillers.

This decrease was documented in a study conducted by a number of health professionals from various institutions in the United States, including Dr. Colleen L. Barry of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The study reads:

Medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates. Further investigation is required to determine how medical cannabis laws may interact with policies aimed at preventing opioid analgesic overdose.

There is some disagreement as to whether this reduction in painkiller mortality rates is actually attributable to medical marijuana. Phoenix House Chief  Medical Officer Dr. Andrew Kolodny is skeptical, because he doesn’t believe marijuana is not widely prescribed for chronic pain. Dr. Kolodny says, “You don’t have primary care doctors in those states [prescribing] marijuana instead of Vicodin.” He argues that even in states where medical marijuana is sold legally, only a small subset of doctors prescribe it.

Instead, he believes the correlation may occur because the states that permit medical marijuana are more included to treat and prevent addition. In those states, he says, there are health systems that are more willing to approach and deal with drug addiction.

There are studies, however, that show marijuana eases the symptoms of withdrawal from opiates. Even heroin addicts have found relief from withdrawal symptoms, recognizes as intense, because of marijuana.

Whatever the exact causative relationship between medical marijuana and this decline in painkiller deaths, it is clear more research is needed. There have been extensive studies on opiates. Now it is time to dedicate research dollars to alternative approaches to pain control.