The United States has a problem with painkillers. During the past 15 years, America has seen a tremendous growth in both the sales of prescription opiates and the number of people who die each year from abusing them. More than 16,000 people fatally overdosed on prescription painkillers in 2013, accounting for 60% of all overdose deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. But a new study suggests that some states have already stumbled onto a means of curbing this fatal epidemic: Easily-accessible marijuana.
For the study, researchers from the RAND Corporation and the University of California-Irvine (UCI) examined whether, in the years following legalization, states that legalized marijuana had experienced reductions in fatal overdoses and addiction treatment center admissions relating to opioid abuse. The researchers found that these states experienced significant reductions in both measures of opioid misuse — but only if they had also legalized marijuana dispensaries.
In the six states where doctors are allowed to prescribe marijuana, but where retail dispensaries are prohibited, the study found “no evidence” of “reductions in substance abuse or mortality.” But in those 18 states where medical marijuana shops are allowed, they found a 16% reduction in “opioid-related mortality” and 28% reduction in opioid-abuse treatment admissions.
Critics of marijuana dispensaries often accuse them of fostering an environment of de facto legalization. In some states, once a doctor provides a qualifying card, the patient can purchase marijuana virtually at will. As Vox’s German Lopez writes, “Just about anyone can go to Venice Beach in Los Angeles, pay around $40 for a card, and legally buy and smoke a joint within five minutes.”
But it may be this very ease of “abuse” that allows dispensaries to prevent fatal overdoses.
The Rand/UCI study found that there was no decline in the distribution of legal opioid painkillers in states with dispensaries. Thus, the researchers suggest that the reduction in painkiller abuse in these states comes less from patients switching their prescriptions, than from people who were taking illegally obtained opioids replacing the drugs with legal weed. In other words — the findings suggest that dispensaries may have saved the lives of some recreational pill-poppers, who quit hard drugs once they got a pot prescription.
Chronic marijuana use is not without potential harms. Although research has been limited because of government restrictions, at least some studies have found that such use can contribute to memory loss and amotivational disorder. But no one has ever died from smoking too much weed. And if further research shows that opening dispensaries really does turn a significant number of opioid abusers into potheads, legal weed may start to look like a sound prescription for America’s drug problem.