Legal weed could help curb prescription drug overdose deaths by 25 percent

Legal weed could help curb prescription drug overdose deaths by 25 percent

VicesFebruary 22, 2016 By Isabelle Kohn

What does the number 44,000 mean to you?

For families and friends of prescription painkiller overdose victims, it means the world. That's the number of people whose lives are ended by legal medications every year. 

Prescription drug overdose is the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, the vast majority of which are caused by pain medications like Vicodin or Oxycontin. For perspective, injury deaths are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, behind heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Marijuana, however, has killed exactly no people. None. Zero. Zilch. Nor does it plan to.

So then, wouldn't it stand to reason that treating people who suffer from chronic pain with a non-lethal, non-addictive substance like marijuana is a bit of a better idea than "treating" them with pills that kill 44,000 of them every year?

Yes, you. Yes it does. And a groundbreaking study published in JAMA Internal Medicine has recognized this. At the end of 2014, it presented a convincing link between the drop in prescription painkiller overdose deaths and the legalization of marijuana in several states. In fact, the study found that states with legal medical marijuana had an average of 24.8 less prescription painkiller deaths. In 2010, that translated to about 1,729 fewer deaths than expected.

"States that implemented medical marijuana laws appear to have lower annual opioid analgesic overdoses death rates (both from prescription pain killers and illicit drugs such as heroin) than states without such laws although the reason why is not clear," said the study's authors in a press release.

For the last decade, the overdose death rate for prescription painkillers has been rising steadily as more and more people are given access to the drugs. Until marijuana was legalized in Colorado, Washington and subsequent states, those painkillers had been people's only option for pain management. We're not doctors of anything, but we'd guess that now legal weed is a thing, people feel safe choosing it, instead of prescription drugs, to manage their pain. And why wouldn't they? Many studies have shown than for some people, pot can be just as, or in some cases more, effective as prescription pain medication at relieving their symptoms.

The study also touched on the fact that medications like Oxycontin and Vicodin are more likely to act as gateway drugs for the people who take then; prescription drug users are much more likely to become addicted to harder opiates like heroin later in life. And while Reagan-esque logic lulled us into believing weed was also a gateway drug, it has no been proven that it's no such thing.

Though the study’s findings did suggest that  legal weed might have an inverse relationship to prescription painkiller overdose deaths, the authors did note there were some possible flaws with their research. For one, cause of death is reported differently state-by-state, making it difficult to ascertain whether an individual death is really a prescription drug overdose or not. Also, the study only focused on states with implemented medical marijuana programs between 1999 and 2010.

However, researchers still felt the results of their report could be extrapolated to apply to other states without medical marijuana. They stated that if further data managed to back up these claims, it could be a strong argument for legalization advocates:

“Although the present study provides evidence that medical cannabis laws are associated with reductions in opioid analgesic overdose mortality on a population level, proposed mechanisms for this association are speculative and rely on indirect evidence. Further rigorous evaluation of medical cannabis policies, including provisions that vary among states, is required before their wide adoption can be recommended. If the relationship between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality is substantiated in further work, enactment of laws to allow for use of medical cannabis may be advocated as part of a comprehensive package of policies to reduce the population risk of opioid analgesics.”

This year, at least 20 additional states will be voting on whether or not to legalize medical marijuana, making this conclusion especially relevant.

So ... is it too soon to conclude that weed may actually (gasp) ... save lives?

Honestly, we don't think it is. Giving people access to healthier choices, especially ones that have zero risk of addiction or overdose, can actually prevent them from ingesting lethal prescription pills, a fact that is backed up by data in this study. As we mentioned above, nearly 2,000 less people died in 2010 than expected from prescription drug overdose in states with medical marijuana, and while that number might not seem like a lot in the face of an annual death toll of 44,000, it matters endlessly to the people whose lives would have been affected.

So, fuck apples; more and more research is proving that joint a day keeps the doctor away, and that's especially important when the doctor in question is a coroner.