Legalizing Medical Marijuana Can Help Prevent People From Overdosing On Painkillers

CREDIT: Shutterstock

A recent study confirms what medical marijuana advocates have long tried to argue: the cannabis plant can serve as a less addictive alternative to prescription painkillers.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine this week, found that the states that enacted medical marijuana laws between 1999 and 2010 — more than a dozen at the time — reported 1,700 fewer prescription painkiller overdose deaths than projected. While researchers say the study has some limitations, including variations in how states classified overdose deaths, they say it makes a case for expanding options for chronic pain relief.

Today, more than 300,000 Americans — many of whom are elderly — overly depend on various prescription painkiller medications including morphine, oxycodone, and Vicodin. In the last 10 years, the rate at which doctors dole out painkillers has nearly doubled. The results, unfortunately, have been devastating. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said that prescription painkillers overdose has accounted for more than half of deaths by injury in the United States in 2011.

“It can be challenging for people to control chronic pain, so I think the more options we have the better,” lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber told CNN. “But I think it’s important, of course, to weigh the risks and benefits of medical marijuana,” said Bachhuber, also a primary care physician at Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The use of marijuana as a therapeutic tool — via inhalation and ingestion — dates back to ancient Chinese and Egyptian cultures. In the early 1840s, Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy introduced marijuana to western medicine as a treatment for muscle spasms and stomach cramps. Marinol, a synthetic form of Tetrahydrocannabinol — the primary active ingredient in marijuana that’s also known as THC — entered U.S. pharmaceutical markets in the 1970s. According to research conducted by the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California, San Diego, medical marijuana can treat nerve damage in feet and arms caused by HIV, sleep abnormality, and pain from spinal cord injury.

The influx of research about marijuana’s health benefits inspired a movement in the 1990s during which voters in eight states showed their approval of medical marijuana via ballot measures. Today, 23 states and the District of Columbia have medical marijuana laws that go against federal policies banning its use. This November, voters in four states — Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania — will decide if similar actions should be taken.

While medical marijuana supporters have gained some momentum, federal and state lawmakers show little sign of backing down. The Obama administration has spent nearly $300 million to combat medical marijuana in states that have legalized it. Florida Governor Jeb Bush (R) has also spoken out against medical marijuana, saying that “allowing large-scale, marijuana operations to take root across Florida, under the guise of using it for medicinal purposes” undermines efforts to increase tourism and make the state more business friendly.

But Morgan Fox, communications manager at the D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project, considers the recent study to provide additional evidence of medical marijuana’s health benefits that pokes holes in outdated arguments used to justify the War on Drugs. During an interview with ThinkProgress, Fox recounted significant anecdotal evidence from patients who claimed that their chronic pain and dependence on prescription painkillers simultaneously decreased after using medical marijuana.

“This research runs counter to the opposition’s claims that legalizing medical marijuana would open up this floodgate for addiction and lead to increased use of harder drugs,” Fox said. “What we found was that in states where patients have access to medical marijuana, they experienced a better quality of life when they cut their use of hard prescription drugs, which have a very high potential for addiction and fatal overdose. Even for the nine percent of regular users that become addicted to marijuana, the harms associated with marijuana addiction are far less dangerous and never fatal.”