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People who use or have considered using cannabis to treat conditions like chronic pain have yet another reason to turn their back on prescription painkillers. JAMA Internal Medicine released a study revealing that medical marijuana may reduce the number of deaths caused by painkiller overdoses.

The study’s abstract begins by detailing the importance of addressing the painkiller overdose epidemic in the United States. The main objective, as the study’s authors put it, was “to determine the association between the presence of state medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality.” The study concluded that deaths resulting from opioid overdoses were “significantly lower” in states where medical marijuana was legal.

Researchers examined death certifications in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010, and cross referenced the data with medical marijuana laws. Only 13 states had legalized medical marijuana at that time of the comparison.

Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, lead author of the study, reported:

“We found there was about a 25% lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law.”

For quite some time, medications like oxycodone and morphine (also known as opioid analgesics) have been prescribed to treat severe chronic pain. Due to the high risk of addiction these drugs present to patients, the chances of overdosing can increase dramatically the longer they are used. According to the CDC, 44 people die each day in the United States by overdosing on prescription painkillers. By contrast, there is currently no record of cannabis causing death by overdose when used alone.

In states where it is legal for medicinal purposes or otherwise, cannabis has proven itself to be a safe alternative to dangerous opioid pain medications. Cannabis has proven to be an effective pain reliever, and many patients report that it works better than pharmaceuticals.  However, due to its legal status at the federal level, researchers have found it difficult to confirm its safety from a scientific perspective.

Dr. Lynn Webster, former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, explained:

“The use of cannabinoids may well have a place in the treatment of pain and other diseases …The DEA should reschedule cannabinoids from Schedule I to Schedule II so that it will make it easier for research to be conducted.”

While the report released by JAMA Internal Medicine is great news for patients and proponents of cannabis, more research is necessary to solidify the link between the use of medical marijuana in the treatment of chronic pain and the decline of painkiller overdoses.

Still, this correlation could help to spark the policy reform required to allow researchers to determine if cannabis can be a safe and effective alternative to prescription painkillers.

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