Prescription opiates seem to be abused at a lower rate in states that have legalized the use of medical cannabis.
A University of Johns Hopkins study confirms, through analysis of death certificates, that states without medical cannabis experience a 25% higher rates of deaths attributed to prescription overdoses. “In absolute terms, states with a medical marijuana law had about 1,700 fewer opioid painkiller overdose deaths in 2010 than would be expected based on trends before the laws were passed,” says the study’s lead author, Marcus Bachhuber, MD, of the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the University of Pennsylvania.
While the debate still continues over the efficacy of cannabis as a substitute for opiates, it is hard to deny that the conversation is gaining attention. Recently, United States Senator, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), lobbied federal authorities to allow studies to examine the possibility that cannabis may help subdue opiate addiction. In a letter to the Center for Disease and Control, she urged officials “to explore every opportunity and tool available to work with states and other federal agencies on ways to tackle the opioid epidemic and collect information about alternative pain relief options.” Warren also indicated she wanted research to examine “the impact of the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana on opioid overdose deaths.”
The idea does not come out of left field. Cannabis has been used in medicine for several thousand years before it was criminalized in the United States in the 1930s. Patients for Medical Cannabis references a Tod H. Mikuriya article that was published in in 1961. This article examines research conducted in 1889 by E.A. Birch, M.D. that recommended cannabis to fight opiate addiction. “Because cannabis did not lead to physical dependence, it was found to be superior to the opiates for a number of therapeutic purposes. Birch, in 1889, reported success in treating opiate and chloral addiction with cannabis, and Mattison in 1891 recommended its use to the young physician, comparing it favorably with the opiates.” Mikuriya concluded.
It is important to proceed on this issue with caution. However, if the DEA re-classifies cannabis this summer (a distinct possibility), then we may finally have some concrete answers on whether or not cannabis can help in the fight against the opiate epidemic.