Opioid-Related Deaths Decrease by 25% in States with Medical Marijuana Programs

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In an effort to show there can be alternatives to help mitigate the use and potentially addictive nature of opioid-based painkillers, Illinois recently launched a program in which pain sufferers were given the option to choose medical marijuana over powerful narcotics. They hope to see opioid-related deaths decrease.

The hoped-for results of the program are that medical marijuana can be a viable replacement drug for prescription pain medicine, and lead those suffering from chronic pain away from prescription painkillers.

The effort in Illinois comes on the heels of a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, in which 13 states where medical marijuana was legal had a 25% decrease in opioid-related deaths as opposed to other states in which marijuana remains illegal.

This study highlights that there can be an alternative to what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has called an epidemic of prescription painkiller use and in severe cases death by overdose. According to the CDC, approximately 44 people per day die of prescription drug overdose.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine1 offers additional highlights of opioid-related issues that medical marijuana can lessen, which are:

  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.
  • The overdose death rate in 2008 was nearly four times the 1999 rate; sales of prescription pain relievers in 2010 were four times those in 1999; and the substance use disorder treatment admission rate in 2009 was six times the 1999 rate.
  • In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills.
  • Four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. As a consequence, the rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013. During this period, the rate of heroin overdose showed an average increase of 6% per year from 2000 to 2010, followed by a larger average increase of 37% per year from 2010 to 2013.
  • 94% of respondents in a 2014 survey of people in treatment for opioid addiction said they chose to use heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”

With these statistics available within the medical community as well as the general population, there’s no wonder that alternatives are being attempted to replace prescription painkillers with substances like medical marijuana, which is less expensive, not addictive and cannot cause a lethal overdose.


On the website Patient for Medical Cannabis2 it is stated that before Bayer introduced aspirin to consumers in 1899, cannabis was America’s number one painkiller. And until marijuana prohibition began in 1937, the U.S. Pharmacopeia listed cannabis as the primary medicine for over 100 diseases.

At the time, the medical community thought of marijuana as an overall treatment for many ailments, including pain. However, as the website explains, because of emerging modern pharmaceutical companies born out of the creation of aspirin, Americans shied away from marijuana in the name of “progress.”

But while the pharmaceutical companies put out increasingly powerful medications throughout the years, marijuana has remained consistent in its properties as a pain reliever.

For instance, a user of cannabis for pain medication has an extremely low chance of overdosing, while in contrast it can be quite easy to overdose on an opiate-based painkiller, even if it is administered properly.

Another aspect of marijuana that trumps prescription painkillers is the cost. Pot is far less expensive than many of the noted painkillers. Medical marijuana is also more readily available than painkillers for which a person needs to see a doctor to get a prescription.


…You should know that opioid deaths have not ended in the 13 states as well as Illinois. They have simply slowed down. So while medical marijuana has the ability to alleviate pain, it certainly hasn’t brought all overdoses to a halt. To do so, pot would have to become legal, and the social mores of it would need to change.

Also take into account that through education as well as local, state and national legislation of opioids have helped reduce painkiller addictions and overdoses since their peak in 2014.

And the medical community has been of assistance as well, as they have searched out alternative medications and/or processes for pain management other than opioid-based medicines.

The overall good that can come out of marijuana as a substitute for prescription painkillers is that pain sufferers have options, and the medical community realizes that. Finally, pain and those in pain are receiving more than a one-size-numbs-all pill.

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