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Can medical marijuana help bring down painkiller overdoses, death?

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Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that deaths due to drug overdose have dramatically increased over the last two decades skyrocketing by 118 percent between the years 1999 and 2011 and of the nearly 23,000 deaths attributed to pharmaceutical overdose in 2011, 74 percent involved opioid pain relievers.

It appears, however, that medical marijuana may help reduce prescription painkiller abuse, which costs the U.S. about $55.7 billion as of 2007 to lost productivity, healthcare costs and criminal justice costs. Findings of a new research have found that states that legalized medical marijuana were more likely to have fewer deaths caused by abuse of narcotic painkillers.

For the new study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine on Aug. 25, Marcus Bachhuber, from the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and colleagues looked at the rate of prescription painkiller overdose for each of the states between 1999 and 2010, 13 of which had passed medical marijuana law during the period.

The researchers found that while deaths to due overdose have increased in all states, the average number of deaths due to prescription painkiller overdose was almost 25 percent less in states that had medical marijuana laws in place.

"States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws," the researchers wrote. "Medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates."

Bachhuber and colleagues likewise observed that the rate of deaths because of painkiller overdose dropped by 20 percent in the first year after a medical marijuana law is passed, which is further reduced to 25 percent by the second year and as much as 33 percent after five years.

While the researchers acknowledged that the mechanism behind the results is not clear, they opined that people suffering from chronic pain may be choosing alternative treatment. States primarily pass medical marijuana laws to give people suffering from chronic and severe pains including those diagnosed with cancer access to alternative treatment as cannabis is known to have painkilling properties.

"We think that people with chronic pain may be choosing to treat their pain with marijuana rather than with prescription painkillers, in states where this is legal," Bachhuber said, adding that it is also possible that the passage of the medical marijuana law may also be altering the way people misuse prescription painkillers.

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