How Medical Marijuana Laws Affect Opioid Mortality

PHILADELPHIA – Could wider use of medical marijuana reduce mortality from opioid analgesic overdose?

That question is raised by a study published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine.1

Noting that opioid analgesic overdose mortality continues to rise in the United States, driven by increases in prescribing for chronic pain, the study, led by researchers from the Center for Health Equity Research and Promotion at the Philadelphia VAMC, sought to determine whether that mortality rate might be affected by laws that establish access to medical cannabis in specific states. The authors explained that chronic pain is a major indication for medical cannabis.

For the study, researchers conducted a  time-series analysis of medical cannabis laws and state-level death certificate data in the United States from 1999 to 2010 with all 50 states included. Also taken into account were the presence of three different policies regarding opioid analgesics and the state-specific unemployment rate.

The study found that three states — California, Oregon, and Washington — had medical cannabis laws effective prior to 1999. Another 10 states — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont — enacted medical cannabis laws between 1999 and 2010.

Results indicated that states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws. Furthermore, the lower rate of overdose mortality generally strengthened over time from a drop of 19.9% in Year One to a drop of 33.3% in Year Six.

“Medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates,” the authors concluded. “Further investigation is required to determine how medical cannabis laws may interact with policies aimed at preventing opioid analgesic overdose.”

  1. Bachhuber MA, Saloner B, Cunningham CO, Barry CL. Medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in the United States, 1999-2010. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Oct;174(10):1668-73. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4005. PubMed PMID:25154332.


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  1. Rene from oregon says:

    I wonder how the recent change in the opiate laws ( coming in the health care reform act) that require testing and barring of opiate prescriptions from those who test positive for cannabis will effect these numbers. Patients are now being forced to choose one or the other not use of both. Will they go back to overdosing in an effort to control break through pain?

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