Higher Ground

Medical marijuana, Oxycontin, overdose deaths, and prohibition

Sep 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Last week, The Washington Post asked, Is medical marijuana the answer to America's prescription painkiller epidemic? The article looked at a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, titled "Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010."

The study began with the reasoning that because painkiller overdose deaths continue to skyrocket in the U.S., and because medical marijuana is considered a treatment for chronic pain in states where it's legal, medical marijuana states might have lower prescription painkiller overdose rates.

The researchers concluded that states with medical marijuana laws have 24.8 percent fewer opioid painkiller overdose deaths than states where prohibition is still in full effect. It also found that the longer the medical marijuana law was in effect, the lower the number of overdose deaths.

Opioid painkillers include brand name drugs such as Oxycontin, Lortab, MS Contin, and Vicodin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990 and have never been higher. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses, and most of these deaths were caused by prescription drugs."

Further, "The sharp rise in opioid overdose deaths closely parallels an equally sharp increase in the prescribing of these drugs. Opioid pain reliever sales in the United States quadrupled from 1999 to 2010."

The CDC's data also shows that in Michigan, in 2010 there were 8.1 kilos of prescription painkillers sold per 10,000 people.

Marijuana, as you might have figured out by now, has never killed anyone who has consumed too much of it.

Michigan has been a medical marijuana state since 2008. You can see on this chart how prescription painkiller overdose death rates have fallen since.

Back in 2009, I covered a single mother of three (who I called Mary Jones), who, following a severe work-related injury, nearly lost her leg. Doctors were able to save it, but the ensuing treatment had her on a cocktail of prescription drugs that included two different types of morphine (an opiate). She was a self-described zombie. A doctor told her some patients found relief with marijuana — but doctors also advised her that it would be too dangerous to get off the prescription drugs.

She did it anyway, weaning herself from the opioids and onto marijuana. With marijuana, she became a functional, active mother again, and a medical marijuana advocate.

Years later, I met a man in a medical marijuana state who thanked me for that story. He'd had a back injury, and was on a cocktail of painkillers for it. He'd always looked down on people who used marijuana, but he was inspired by Mary Jones, and slowly stopped taking the pills and started medicating with marijuana. His life, he said, was much better. He was active, and was no longer dependent on pills.

These are just two anecdotal stories. But they hint at a larger cultural phenomenon occurring in medical marijuana states, where people who suffer from pain are able to make the choice to forgo opioid pills for a plant that is cultivated by themselves, or someone or someplace they trust.

And this isn't to say that opioids are bad: Certainly, there are people who suffer so greatly an opiate is truly the only relief.

What all of this really lends itself to is suspending judgment, listening to people, and ending the prohibition on marijuana and then conducting more much-needed research. After all, prescription pills are killing more Americans every year than marijuana has in its entire history. By ending prohibition, further research into how it works, with whom, for what, and why, can and will be conducted. — mt