Medical Marijuana, Overdose Rates and Chronic Pain

medicine bottle with medical marijuana on top of a prescription pad

While much of the recent discussion around marijuana is related to legalization for recreational use, it’s important not to overlook the topic of medical marijuana. While Colorado and Washington State passed legislation making pot use legal for casual imbibers without a medical marijuana card, marijuana is already legal for medical purposes in 29 states and the District of Columbia, as of 2017. In California, the first state to legalize medical marijuana, more than 75,000 medical marijuana cards were issued between 2004 and 2014.

Now, some researchers are suggesting that access to medical marijuana may positively affect overdose rates, finding people in states where they can use cannabis to manage pain are less likely to turn to powerful – and highly addictive — prescription painkillers.

Overdose Rates & Medical Marijuana

The rate of overdose due to prescription painkillers has risen dramatically in recent years. This isn’t too surprising, though, when you realize that the number of patients in the United States with chronic pain who get prescriptions for one of these drugs has nearly doubled in the past decade. It’s nothing short of an epidemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree, citing that deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily over the past two decades and have become the leading cause of injury death in the US. In 2011, 55 percent of drug overdose deaths were related to prescription medications; 75 percent of those involved opioid analgesics.

A new study, published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that states where marijuana is legal for managing chronic pain have significantly fewer deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses each year. To draw this conclusion, researchers looked at medical marijuana laws and death certificate data in all 50 states between 1999 and 2010.

Rates of prescription painkiller overdose death were approximately 25 percent lower in states that had a medical marijuana law. In 2010 alone, states with medical marijuana laws had approximately 1,700 fewer overdose deaths, according to the study director. That doesn’t mean medical marijuana is the answer to America’s opioid epidemic, however. Far from it.

The Problem of Chronic Pain

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from chronic pain, including 100 million Americans. Chronic pain is a complex issue, though, and doctors are quick to point out that medical marijuana isn’t a quick fix. Prescribers and patients both need to weigh the risks and compare those to opioid analgesics like morphine, oxycodone and methadone.

Cannabis has been shown to provide relief from cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and a range of other conditions. But is medical marijuana the answer to this national public health crisis? The drug can be unpredictable. Unlike a manufactured product, the ingredients and potency can’t be controlled in the same way. Users (and their doctors) never know precisely what is being ingested and in what amounts.

The ABCs of Medical Marijuana

The term “medical marijuana” generally applies to the whole unprocessed marijuana plant or its crude extracts, which are not recognized or approved as medicine by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to the government-run website drugabuse.gov. Most marijuana sold in dispensaries as medicine is the same quality and carries the same health risks as marijuana sold on the street.

Cannabinoids are a large family of chemicals related to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s main mind-altering ingredient. Besides THC, the marijuana plant contains over 100 other cannabinoids. The body also produces its own cannabinoid chemicals (called endocannabinoids), which play a role in regulating pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, sensory and time perception, appetite and pain.

Growing acceptance of medical marijuana has helped to give the impression that marijuana use is safe. This is notable because research has shown that when the perceived risk goes down, use goes up. As medical marijuana use has become more prevalent, the rates of marijuana use among high school students has also risen.

Marijuana Risks

The use of marijuana, whether to manage pain or for recreational purposes, does come with risks. These can include impairment of short-term memory, altered judgment and decision-making, severe anxiety, paranoia or even psychosis. Marijuana also significantly reduces motor coordination and slows reaction time, particularly dangerous when driving. While we don’t yet know if marijuana smoking contributes to lung cancer risk, it can cause or worsen other respiratory problems such as bronchitis or chronic cough.

There is also risk of abuse. Despite what many think, marijuana can be addictive. Statistics from drugabuse.gov show that nearly one in 10 people who try marijuana will become addicted to it. The number goes up to about one in six among people who start using marijuana as teenagers, and the rate of addiction is a whopping 25-50 percent among daily users.

Getting Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to prescription painkillers or another substance, call us today at 800-533-5266. We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide information on treatment programs, help with insurance and answer questions about the treatment process.