States With Medical Marijuana Have Fewer Painkiller Overdose Deaths

by DailyHealthPost Editorial

medical marijuana

We’re finally on the right track. At least the statistics indicate so.For decades, marijuana has been illegal for growth, sale, and use in the United States. In recent years, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for restricted medical use.

The overwhelming evidence of this potent plant’s efficacy in reducing pain and treating cancer is finally beginning to make an impression on those who deny its use.

states medical marijuana fewer painkiller overdose deaths


Marijuana was criminalized in the 1930s, against the advice of the American Medical Association.

Responsibility for legalization of marijuana (for medical use only) was given to the individual states by the federal government. California was the first to make it available in 1996. There are currently twenty-four states that have legalized its use when prescribed by a physician.[1] The federal government, however, performed a little back-hand maneuver: in 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that:

“…federal law enforcement authorities could criminally prosecute patients for possessing marijuana prescribed by a physician in accordance with state law. The Court did not overturn state medical marijuana laws but did open the door to criminal prosecution under federal drug statutes. The Court also did not foreclose future challenges to federal enforcement on other constitutional grounds (eg, an unwarranted invasion of patient-physician privacy)…despite a ruling from Administrative Law Judge Francis Young that ‘it is unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] to continue to stand between sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence.'”[2]

So even if your doctor prescribes it, the feds can come busting into your house and arrest you if you have marijuana that you bought from the state. (We are obviously ignoring the question of how this is a Constitutional issue that would come before the Supreme Court in the first place.)

Federally, marijuana is categorized as a Schedule I controlled substance, along with heroin and LSD (lysergic acid diethyl amide, “acid”). Not even like apples and oranges–more like apples and hemlock. All have psychoactive effects but that is where the similarities end–potency, derivation, and other factors make this classification inappropriate.

Data Show Significant Correlation

In the last year, additional states have nevertheless approved marijuana for medical use. A study encompassing eleven years of data was published recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Internal Medicine in which it was found that in those states that allow the prescription of marijuana for chronic pain relief, the incidence of overdose of opioid painkillers was significantly lower–just under twenty-five percent–than other states.

“Opioid medications are problematic as a treatment for chronic pain. Opioid pharmaceuticals cause other adverse effects when used for long periods, such as tolerance, hyperalgesia, and gastrointestinal complications, making this class of drugs a poor choice for long-term use. As is well known, prescription opioids also have great abuse potential due to their influence on stress and reward circuits in the brain, promoting nonmedical use and abuse and diversion of prescription medications…a convincing protective effect of medical marijuana laws was found in a covariate-adjusted, time-series model in which opioid analgesic mortality declined steadily based on years since medical marijuana laws were enacted.”[3]

The use of opioid painkillers is rising at an epidemic rate. Overdoses from prescription medications account for seventy-five percent of all drug overdoses and by 2010 had tripled from those in the 20 years previous[4]. The numbers have been consistently increasing since 1990. The DEA has recognized this and recently imposed restrictions on the prescription of narcotic hydrocodone for pain due to its high potential for abuse.

“I won’t go schizo, will I?”

states medical marijuana fewer painkiller overdose deaths


Arguments against the use of marijuana are plentiful: it is a “gateway” drug, users become intoxicated and are unable to function normally, there is a potential for addiction and abuse. None of these are substantiated. On the contrary, the cannabinoids inherent in marijuana have been used as medicine for thousands of years with few, if any, adverse effects.

All of those arguments, however, have been validated for prescription painkillers. Further, the number of deaths from use of marijuana is virtually nil, certainly none of a true overdose–of these very few, it’s more likely the cause was food poisoning from eating old take-out food while stoned. A Harvard University policy analyst remarked:

“Aside from the almost self-evident proposition that smoking anything is probably bad for the lungs, the quarter century since large numbers of Americans began to use marijuana has produced remarkably little laboratory or epidemiological evidence of serious health damage done by the drug.”[5]

In contrast, the number of deaths from the overdose of prescription medicines is in the tens of thousands, the number from smoking cigarettes (and the consequences of this legal addictive drug, such as cancer and heart disease) is in the millions per year[6] and the number of deaths related to alcohol each year are close to ninety thousand.

Enlightenment at last?

In a news release in June 2014, the FDA published a statement regarding its current position on the investigation into the use of marijuana as a medicine:

“There is considerable public interest in developing new therapies from marijuana and its constituents. FDA will continue to support development of such new therapies that are safe, effective, and manufactured to a high quality, applying the drug development paradigm that continues to provide important new medicines for patients. This paradigm, grounded in rigorous scientific research, is essential to determining the appropriate uses of marijuana and its constituents in the treatment of human disease. As a part of this important work, we are committed to collaborating with Federal and state agencies, researchers, and manufacturers also working on issues related to the use of marijuana in the United States, including cooperation to help speed the development of safe and effective new drugs.”[7]

The numbers of deaths from opioids has been rising steadily over the last fifteen years, in line with the number of prescriptions written for them, even in the states that have legalized medical marijuana. The current study, however, shows an interesting trend that may indicate that marijuana is a much safer (and healthier) alternative to narcotics when managing pain.

Plants as Medicine

states medical marijuana fewer painkiller overdose deaths


There are reasons Nature makes “weeds”: they are easy to grow, prolific in their propagation, difficult to eradicate and require no care to flourish (as any gardener can attest). In this group are dandelion, plantain, clover, mint, and marijuana. Nature provides bounty to promote the health of everything living. It’s up to us to recognize and make use of it.