Deaths related to opioid overdose have been increasing at alarming rates in the 21st century. The rate of prescriptions for opioids has more than doubled in the last decade alone. The primary reason an individual is prescribed opioids is to treat chronic pain that is not associated with cancer. It is estimated that roughly 60% of individuals who overdose on opioids had a legitimate prescription to treat their pain from a single healthcare provider. It is an awful tragedy that so many lives have been lost in such a short amount of time from individuals simply following the advice of a medical professional. Indeed, it is vital to our society to find effective solutions to end the opioid epidemic and provide alternative pain management therapies. As of January 2018, there are now twenty-nine states with laws that allow for the use of medical cannabis. This highly therapeutic plant, used for thousands of years as a potent medicine by civilizations across the world, has been unjustly villainized by American policy makers in the 20th century. Medical cannabis deserves to be made available to every American as part of their health care regimen and treatment plan.
To better understand the role legal medical cannabis might play in regards to preventing opioid overdose related deaths, researchers Bachhuber et al, from the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the University of Pennsylvania, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health analyzed the rates of overdose deaths due to opioids in states with and without medical cannabis laws. Death certificate data was analyzed from all 50 states within the United States between the years of 1999 and 2010. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the findings were published in 2014 in the most prestigious medical journal in the United States, the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings of the study are powerful enough to warrant major cannabis policy changes, not just in every state, but federally as well.
Prior to 1999, only three states had laws allowing for the use of medical cannabis: California, Oregon, and Washington. During the study period of 1999 – 2010 ten more states enacted medical cannabis laws and were included in the research team’s analysis: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont. New Jersey also enacted medical cannabis laws in the final months of 2010, however, the researchers did not include its data in their analysis due to such a limited amount of time.
The findings from the team’s analysis demonstrated that in both states with and without medical cannabis laws, the number of deaths related to opioid overdose had increased over time. Further, in states with medical cannabis laws during the study period, the number of deaths related to opioid overdose was actually higher than in those states without such laws. The total number of deaths between the two groups rose at roughly the same rate. However, during the years 2009 and 2010, the number of deaths in states with medical cannabis laws began to plateau.
After an extensive review, researchers determined that states with medical cannabis laws actually had fewer opioid related deaths. The researchers noted that throughout the study period, states with these laws had an average of roughly 25% fewer deaths per year after adjusting for age and population. The number of opioid related deaths continued to lessen as time went on, suggesting the effect of these laws was not only providing an alternative solution for an individual’s pain management, but saving people’s lives. In the fifth year after medical cannabis laws were enacted in these states, there were 33% fewer deaths. In 2010 alone, this accounted for roughly 1,729 fewer deaths than expected.
The team then wanted to know if states with medical cannabis laws would still have fewer opioid related deaths if they included data involving individuals who committed suicide by intentionally overdosing on opioids, and those deaths related to heroin overdose. Again, the researchers found that these states still had fewer deaths when medical cannabis was made available to the population. The evidence from this study clearly demonstrates that cannabis has a positive impact on reducing the severity of the opioid epidemic and providing an effective alternative for pain management.
The majority of individuals who overdose on opioids were prescribed opioids by their healthcare provider. These individuals may be willing to try cannabis as an alternative to manage their pain, especially if they received a prescription from their healthcare provider. Another reason that medical cannabis should be explored is due to its ability to reduce and even eliminate the need for anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines. This class of drugs is well known to be highly addictive and greatly increases the risks of overdosing on opioids and heroin.
While it has been suggested that the findings of this study may be slightly skewed due to the fact that states with medical cannabis laws tend to have healthier populations and are known for more progressive policies, these results should not be dismissed. There is also some difficulty when analyzing this kind of data over such a huge population size, not to mention the potential for under-reportings of causes of death that may be due to opioids or heroin. However, given the knowledge of how safe cannabis consumption can be, its low potential for abuse, its minimal side-effects, its ability to reduce opioid and heroin withdrawal symptoms, and the plethora of research over the past few decades documenting its multifaceted therapeutic benefits, it is time to end the outdated prohibition of such a powerful and beneficial medicine.
Medical cannabis should be a key recommendation in the federal government’s and every state’s plan to eradicate the opioid epidemic and further prevent unnecessary pain, suffering, and loss of life.