States with medical marijuana laws have a 24.8% lower  annual opioid overdose mortality rate

It is possible medical marijuana is saving lives but give people a less dangerous treatment for chronic pain.

Earlier this year I noted that overall opioid prescriptions rates were lower in medical marijuana states and now there is research showing that the relative number of prescription opioid overdoses dropped significantly after states adopted medical marijuana.

The new paper in the JAMA Internal Medicine looked at opioid overdoses from 1990-2010. It found that “states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws.”

In addition, the research found that as states slowly implemented their medical medical marijuana laws the relative drop in mortality rate increased over time. Implying that as medical marijuana became more available to regular people in a state the effect increased.

Correlation doesn’t necessary mean causation. It theoretically is possible both trends are drive by a third factor, like more liberal states tend to be the first to adopt medical marijuana laws and may also be more willing to fund opioid treatment programs. The issue definitely deserves more research.

That said the size of the drop, the fact that it increases over time, and a clear possible mechanism of action implies medical marijuana laws may at least played some role in this decrease.

Other studies have shown that medical marijuana can be useful for pain management and allows patients with pain to consume few opiates. While it is fairly easy to die from an opioid overdose that is effectively impossible with marijuana, so patients substituting the latter for the former should reduce overdose deaths.

It is possible the federal government’s needless war on medical marijuana has indirectly result in thousands of additional deaths.

Jon Walker is the author of After Legalization: Understanding the future of marijuana policy

Photo by Goodiez under Creative Commons license