Medical Marijuana Use and Opioid Deaths; Surprising Findings

The concerns with opioid use are becoming legendary.  Despite grave concerns, prescriptions for this class of drugs continue to rise.

The only thing I can figure is that the same group of physicians that are writing prescriptions for hydrocodone, Percocet and Vicodin are also ordering CT scans on every patient.  And maybe even writing antibiotic prescriptions for clearly viral related illnesses.

Regardless, there does not seem to be a clear end in sight to the overuse of opioids.  Sometime in 2010 the number of deaths associated with prescription pain killers (principally opioids) surpassed deaths from illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine.  Interesting when you consider the fact that the illegal drugs are obtained illegally with no type of gatekeeper (and so should be easier to get with the right connections) and the prescription drugs have to go through a gatekeeper that is supposed to restrict access to only those that need the drug.

Of course, the illegal drugs are purchased with cash that is paid for by the users while the prescription drugs are largely paid for by the insurance companies.  Kind of a sick system if you really think about it.

Despite all this, the uproar that accompanies medical marijuana legislation is quite loud.  Those who oppose legislation say it’s a bad idea and will cost society.  Ironically, this same group does not seem to have a problem with handing out opioids like Halloween candy to everyone who visits the ER or urgent care with so much as a sprained pinky.  And this overuse is actually supported by the insurance companies.  Crazy.

Considering that some people use medical marijuana for pain control, it would be interesting to see what happens to opioid overdosages in those states that have passed medical marijuana laws.  Conveniently enough, this particular article addresses just that question.

(Disclaimer:  Those who know me could easily confirm that I am NOT and have never used marijuana.  Not even an inhale.  So the opinion expressed in this article is in no way tied to my personal attachments or lack thereof for marijuana.)

In the study, researchers looked at opioid overdose deaths across all 50 states from 1999-2010 and compared the states with medical cannibis legislation.    Here’s what they found:

  • Three states (California, Oregon, and Washington) had medical cannabis laws effective prior to 1999.
  • Ten states (Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont) enacted medical cannabis laws between 1999 and 2010.
  • States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower rate of opioid overdose deaths.
  • In general, the longer the laws had been in effect, the lower that state’s risk of opioid overdose deaths.

Makes for kind of a hard argument supporting the use of medical marijuana for chronic pain control instead of opioids.  This protection (which can only come from a shift to marijuana away from opioids) is despite the fact that insurance covers prescription drugs and marijuana users are paying cash.  Talk about a windfall for the insurance companies.  You’d think they’d be lining up to get laws passed in all 50 states just to save money (opioid costs are a large chunk of chronic pain expenditures).

I think I’ll file this one under ‘natural pain relief.”


James Bogash

For more than a decade, Dr. Bogash has stayed current with the medical literature as it relates to physiology, disease prevention and disease management. He uses his knowledge to educate patients, the community and cyberspace on the best way to avoid and / or manage chronic diseases using lifestyle and targeted supplementation.