Medical marijuana may reduce painkiller-related deaths, according to the conclusions of a recent study that was published in the Journal of The American Medical Association. Researchers were inspired to take up the study by the fact that medical cannabis is often prescribed for chronic pain, in the states that have made it legal. Their goal was to find out if the states offering people greater access to medical marijuana have seen lower number of deaths from painkillers. They based their statistical study on data from the Centers for Disease Control.
The Dangers of Opioid Painkillers
Many of us don’t realize the harm that opioid painkillers prescribed by our doctors can do. A horrifying Canadian study, reported in 2014, that prescribed painkillers were causing more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined in Canada and the US. Opioid painkillers are known to be addictive, and to cause euphoria. This has led to plenty of cases of the misuse of opioids. When these painkillers are mixed with alcohol or other drugs like heroin, they can be fatal.
Millions of people depend on prescription painkillers for pain management. We all know how important pain management is for improving quality of life after surgery or when you’re living with chronic pain.
Opioids include drugs like codeine, Demerol, methadone, tramadol, morphine etc. Hydrocodon opioids like Vicodine are often prescribed for painful conditions related to injuries and dental conditions. Codeine is a weaker opioid than many, and is used to treat diarrhea and coughs. Morphine is often prescribed for use before and after surgery. When patients take these drugs for an extended time, they tend to develop resistance to the effects. (They end up taking larger doses to overcome this resistance, sometimes leading to overdose.)
A few years earlier, in 2010, over 12 million people admitted to taking painkillers without a prescription.
Medical Marijuana for safer pain relief?
A possible alternative to prescription painkillers comes from a surprising but not unexpected source. The much-maligned cannabis plant. Medical marijuana has its strong supporters as well as strong critics. Three states Washington, Oregon and California had laws controlling legal cannabis before 1999.
Between 1999 and 2010, ten other states including Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island and Vermont enacted laws regarding medical marijuana.
At dispensaries across these states, medical cannabis has been prescribed for pain relief for some time, despite critics who claim that its effects are not so simple to qualify. According to many experts, THC in medical cannabis is known to work well against cancer-related pain, HIV-related pain etc. It is also effective against nausea that often accompanies chronic pain. Cannnabis has been prescribed by doctors for muscle spasms in patients suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Tourette’s syndrome and Schizophrenia.
The recent study published in JAMA took into account medical cannabis laws and death certificates across fifty states between 1999 and 2010. The conclusion they arrived at was that on average, the rate of deaths related to painkillers was twenty five percent lower in states that had marijuana laws in place, in comparison with states where cannabis is still illegal.
The lead researcher in the study, Marcus Bachhuber, MD who is associated with the University of Pennsylvania, writes that the states where medical cannabis is legal, there were as many as 1700 fewer deaths due to opioid painkiller overdoses in 2010, as compared to the trends before the law had been passed.
During the study, the researchers made adjustments for age and other factors that could have lowered opioid overdose deaths, such as state-intervention in pain management clinics, prescription monitoring programs etc.
The results of the study agree with an earlier report of a 2015 study at Columbia University, which suggested that marijuana may be useful in treating opioid addiction. Opioid addicts on the earlier study were treated with a certain quantity of THC daily and their withdrawal symptoms were found to be drastically reduced.
Researchers have also found that the link between opioid deaths and medical cannabis laws have become stronger with time. For instance, after the first year of a law’s implementation, opioid deaths went down by as much as twenty percent. Five years after the law had been in place, the numbers of deaths were found to be as much as 34 percent lower.
Response to the Study
Other experts have also been weighing in on the report’s findings. Professor Marie Hayes of the University of Maine comments on the significance of the study since it is the first such study to take population-level data and show the benefits of medical marijuana.
Studies on the effectiveness of medical marijuana prior to this study have been few and inconclusive. There are few studies on cannabis that follow clinical trials, the best kind of study, which compares marijuana to a placebo (a fake’ treatment) or another drug. (Only 6 percent of the studies on marijuana so far actually analyze the medical benefits of the drug. )
This is partly due to a 1970 federal law that classified marijuana as a highly addictive, illegal drug that does not have any medical value. Marijuana is listed along with heroin as a schedule 1 drug, even as many states are making it legal for medical use. This federal law has made it harder for researchers to take up studies on marijuana.
The Implications of the Study
According to the researchers, it is not clear how medical cannabis can be related to lower opioid doses. But clearly the trends over the decade that was studied shows that the relationship has been a continuous one rather than a short-term trend.
The researchers do say that more studies are needed to explain how medical marijuana laws could possibly be affecting opioid overdose deaths. But with policies changing quickly and twenty eight states already having legalized medical cannabis as of 2016, it seems critical to make these studies possible sooner rather than later.
The University of Mississippi is currently the only federally legal cannabis grower, and therefore the research that can be done is very limited. It is to be hoped that studies like the one by Marcus Bacchuber and the states still awaiting legalization will change the landscape of research into cannabis.