The number of deaths from prescription drug overdose is 25% lower in American states where it is legal to use medical marijuana to manage chronic pain and other conditions.
In 2010, that translated to 1,729 fewer deaths in states with legalised medical marijuana.
The findings of the study, led by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, suggest that while medical marijuana laws can be controversial and opponents have raised concerns that they may promote cannabis use among children, they may have unintended benefits as well.
While more research is needed, the findings suggest the wider availability of medical marijuana for people in pain may help to reduce the growing number of overdose deaths attributed to prescription pain pills.
A report on the research is published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
“Prescription drug abuse and deaths due to overdose have emerged as national public health crises,” says Colleen L. Barry, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School.
“As our awareness of the addiction and overdose risks associated with use of opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin grows, individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal.”
California, Oregon and Washington legalised medical marijuana before to 1999, with 10 more states following between then and 2010. As of June 2014, another 10 states and Washington, DC, have adopted similar laws.
Medical marijuana laws have been passed to give access to the drug to people with chronic or severe pain, sometimes due to conditions such as cancer or multiple sclerosis. Cannabis is believed to have painkilling properties and also to relieve nausea and improve appetite.
In Australia, there are moves in some states to decriminalise the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Norfolk Island, an external Australian territory, wants to grow marijuana for the medical industry.
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