Studies suggest medical marijuana could lower opioid-related deaths

Could increasing access to medical marijuana reduce opioid abuse and overdose deaths?

Proponents say yes.

Roughly three out of five opioid overdoses occur in people with legitimate prescriptions for opioid painkillers, according to STAT. This is the share of opioid users that might consider using medical marijuana as an alternative for pain relief.

Three studies support this claim, as detailed by STAT.

One 2014 study found states with any kind of medical marijuana law had a 25 percent lower death rate from opioid overdoses than states that don't allow medical marijuana. This effect increased over time, according to STAT. In the law's first year, there was a 20 percent lower rate of opioid deaths, 24 percent lower in the third year and 33 percent lower in the sixth year.

A 2015 study found medical marijuana dispensaries were associated with a 16 percent (and potentially as high as 31 percent) decline in opioid overdose deaths, especially among men, compared to states with no dispensaries.

A July study published in Health Affairs found physicians in states that allow medical marijuana wrote fewer prescriptions for opioid painkillers to Medicare beneficiaries than physicians in other states.

Taken together, these findings suggest the emergence and proliferation of medical marijuana contributes to fewer people dying of opioid overdoses. "If it were just one study, or two, I'd be less confident," said Rosalie Liccardo Pacula, PhD, of RAND, who led the 2015 study cited by STAT. "But now there are three."

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