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Opioid Overdoses

States Allowing Medical Marijuana Report Fewer Opioid Overdose Fatalities

posted 10:19 PM EST, Mon August 25, 2014

On average, states with medical marijuana programs saw a substantial drop (24.8%) in opioid overdose fatalities.

Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania say there’s a significant association between legalizing medical marijuana and reducing opioid overdose deaths.

The Numbers

To come to this conclusion, the research team looked at overdose statistics from between 1990 and 2010, comparing death-rates in 13 states with legal medical marijuana programs, to all other states. They found:

  • States with legalized medical marijuana programs had a 24.8% lower average annual opioid overdose mortality rate than states which did not permit the use of medical marijuana.
  • The life-saving effects strengthened with time. Compared to all other states, in the first year after legalization, on average, states saw a 20% drop in opioid overdose fatalities – by 5 years post legalization, average opioid overdose deaths dropped by 33.7%.
  • 60% of American opioid overdose fatalities occur among people with legitimate prescriptions for these medications.

The Explanation

The medical team proposes two likely explanations for the drop in overdose deaths:

  1. Though medical marijuana isn’t known as a strong analgesic, some people may find that cannabis offers sufficient pain relief. Others may find that supplementing with cannabis allows for a lower daily opioid dosage.
  2. People with more access to medical marijuana may have less incentive to abuse opioids, or they may abuse opioids differently, than people without access to marijuana.

To learn more, visit JAMA Internal Medicine to see the original research results.

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Story Highlights
  • Medical Marijuana and Opioid Overdoses: On average, states enacting medical marijuana programs saw a 24.8% reduction in opioid overdose fatalities.
  • Reduced Opioid Needs: Researchers speculate that people with access to medical cannabis may take fewer opioid medications for pain management.
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