How an Illegal "Drug" is Reducing Prescription Painkiller Addiction

Carey Wedler
July 17, 2015

(ANTIMEDIA) As cannabis legalization becomes increasingly popular, a new study suggests not only that the plant is effective at soothing pain, but that it may actually help reduce America’s widespread addiction to painkillers.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that states with legal medical cannabis dispensaries saw admissions to addiction treatment centers due to painkiller dependency fall significantly, indicating medical cannabis “may [contribute to] a reduction in harms associated with opioid pain relievers, a far more addictive and potentially deadly substance.

Opiates are so deadly, the authors noted, that drug overdoses are a leading cause of death from injury in the United States, outpacing car accidents, suicides, and gun shot fatalities. 80% of new heroin (opiate) addicts were previously addicted to pharmaceutical painkillers, while in 2010—as the researchers detail—16,651 people died from opioid overdoses—making up 60% of all overdose deaths. In spite of the well-documented dangers of painkillers, rates of prescription skyrocketed 300% over the last decade, leading the CDC to declare the problem an “epidemic.”

The authors note 24 states that currently allow medical cannabis, but clarify that they focused on the 18 states that have legally protected dispensaries—retail locations where patients can purchase weed. They found that in these states, there was a decrease between 15-35% in admissions to addiction treatment centers for prescription abuse, explaining the rates were most pronounced after three or more years of legalization.

The effect of medical cannabis on painkiller addiction has been addressed in one previous study, which found that “states with medical marijuana laws on the books saw 24.8 percent fewer deaths from painkiller overdoses compared to states that didn’t have such laws.” That study, however, examined a smaller amount of data and invoked a narrower range of statistical methods than the NBER analysis released this week. The NBER’s study’s results provides a more thorough analysis.

The findings constitute yet another example to add to the growing list of ailments cannabis helps to alleviate. From seizures to cancer and Crohn’s disease—among countless others—prohibitionists now fight an increasingly uphill battle to keep the plant illegal. Their goals are effectively equal to denying medicine to sick individuals (beyond medical benefits, other studies suggest marijuana is less dangerous than other state-sanctioned drugs).

The authors provided the caveat that they were unsure if the effects of legal medical marijuana dispensaries were short-term or would continue to affect addiction. Further, they analyzed the data at a state-level—not an individual one—making it difficult to pinpoint the exact impact of more relaxed state attitudes toward medical marijuana.

Even so, the findings add yet another nail to the Drug War’s coffin, further embarrassing individuals and institutions that promote prescription pills while archaically demonizing the very medicine that can help to treat addiction to the same drugs.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article listed painkillers as the leading cause of death from injury. It has been corrected to reflect that drug overdoses are a leading cause of death from injury.

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