Led by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the study identifies opioid analgesics as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin, which are prescribed for moderate to severe pain, and work by suppressing a person’s perception of pain. The study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine publication, examined the rate of deaths caused by opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2010. Results reveal that on average, the 13 medical marijuana states had a 24.8 percent lower annual opioid overdose mortality rate after the laws were enacted than states without the laws, indicating that the alternative treatment may be safer for patients suffering from chronic pain related to cancer and other conditions.
Even more startingly: Approximately 60 percent of all deaths resulting from opioid analgesic overdoses occur in patients who have legitimate prescriptions. Additionally, the proportion of patients in the United States who are prescribed opioids for non-cancer pain has almost doubled over the past decade, indicating the need to do a more focused examination on the safety and efficacy of these and other treatment options, the Penn researchers concluded. They suggest that medical cannabis could be prescribed as an alternative to opiods.
Lead researcher Marcus Bachhuber cautioned evidence for the pain-relieving properties is limited. but that pot may provide relief for some individuals. “In addition, people already taking opioids for pain may supplement with medical marijuana and be able to lower their painkiller dose, thus lowering their risk of overdose,” Bacchuber said.
Additional results of the study show that the relationship between lower opioid overdose deaths and medical marijuana laws strengthened over time; deaths were nearly 20 percent lower in the first year after a state’s law was implemented, and 33.7 percent lower five years after implementation.
While safer treatment of chronic pain may help to explain lower rates of overdose deaths, medical marijuana laws may also change the way people misuse or abuse opioid painkillers,
Bacchuber added. That’s because marijuana and opioids stimulate similar areas in the brain’s pathways.
The authors suggest that as more states implement medical marijuana laws, future studies should examine the association between such laws and opioid overdoses to confirm their findings.