Which drug is more dangerous, one that remains illegal in much of the country or one that’s prescribed by a doctor and taken as instructed? When the drugs in question are marijuana for medical purposes versus powerfully addictive opioid painkillers like hydrocodone and oxycodone, there’s evidence that one of these drugs is significantly less risky than the other. You might not often hear “saving lives” as an argument for legalizing medical marijuana – but new research indicates that could be exactly what’s happening in states that have already done so.
Prescription drug overdoses have become an epidemic, a public health crisis, and a massive problem that has the potential to affect any individual who has the misfortune to suffer chronic pain. Addiction to and overdose from prescription painkillers isn’t a problem limited to drug-seekers. Even patients with no history of substance abuse, who begin taking opioid painkillers on doctors’ orders to relieve the severe pain from a serious injury or illness, can find themselves trapped in the nightmare of prescription painkiller dependence – even if they only ever take the medication as directed. It really can happen to anyone. The number of people this has, in fact, happened to is nothing short of startling. Three times as many people now die from prescription painkiller overdoses compared to 20 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported. In 2009, for example, prescription drug overdoses killed 15,500 people. In the past couple of years, the situation has reached the point where more people now die from prescription painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. A huge factor in this problem is over-prescription. Doctors are supposed to know the risks of a medication. When they prescribe doses that are too high or taken too frequently or when they fail to minimize the risks of patients becoming addicted or overdosing, they put lives in danger. Over-prescription rates vary widely by state, but the problem exists everywhere, including right here in the South Jersey and Philadelphia area. How exactly does medical marijuana fit into this whole problem? In states that allow it, patients and their doctors can decide to use medical marijuana – a drug without the highly addictive and dangerous qualities of opioid and narcotic painkillers – to relieve their pain. They may be able to decrease or entirely stop their use of prescription pain pills. Now that some states have begun allowing marijuana use for medical purposes, researchers have compared prescription painkiller death rates before and after passing medical marijuana laws. Their findings might surprise you.
In states that passed laws allowing marijuana use for medical reasons, the number of deaths from prescription painkillers decreased by 25 percent compared to prescription overdose death rates before the law changes, CNN reported. With the epidemic that prescription painkiller overdose has become, a 25 percent decrease in deaths is a big deal. In 2010, states that had legalized medical marijuana saw 1,700 fewer overdose deaths from prescription painkillers than expected, according to CNN. This decrease is great news. Statistically speaking, it means that in a single year, 1,700 people who likely would have died didn’t have to. They were able to get the relief they needed from their chronic pain without exposing their bodies to highly addictive medications that are in the same drug family as heroin. They could treat their pain without developing an addiction, without the unfair stigma, and without the risk of overdosing and dying from their medication. Despite these promising findings, even the researchers involved in the study stated that “the link between medical marijuana laws and overdose deaths is not completely clear,” CNN reported. Further research is needed to determine how much of a role other possible explanations besides the legality of medical marijuana may play in the decreased death rates. Yet the research does, at least, provide a compelling possibility to explore in the struggle to counter the public health crisis of prescription medication addiction and overdose. So far, just under half the states in the country – 23 – permit the use of medical marijuana for chronic pain and other disorders, according to WebMD. Because 10 of these states only recently enacted medical marijuana laws, only the 13 states that had laws on the books prior were considered in the study. If further findings support this theory that legalizing medical marijuana provides patients with a safer, effective alternative to opioid painkillers, perhaps more states will follow suit and more lives will be saved.