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Medical Marijuana and Drug Overdoses

An apparent benefit of the legalization of medical marijuana has been an unexpected drop in deaths related to overdoses of prescription painkillers. A study that assessed the availability of medical marijuana and analyzed the data on deaths nationwide between 1999 and 2010 found that deaths from prescription painkillers had dropped by 25 percent in states that had legalized medical marijuana (in 2010 only 13 states had done so compared to 23 states today). The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that, in 2010 alone, overdose deaths dropped by about 1,700 in states where medical marijuana had been legalized. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths related to pain medications have become epidemic over the past two decades and are now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. The CDC reported that in 2011, 55 percent of drug overdoses stemmed from prescription medications and 75 percent of those involved opiate derived painkillers. One critic of the study suggested that other explanations, such as expanded methadone and buprenorphine programs, might have influenced the drop in overdose deaths, as might the action of the Drug Enforcement Administration in shutting down “pill mills.”

Marcus A. Bachhuber, et al, “Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010,” JAMA Internal Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4005