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The High Way to Reducing Rx Drug Deaths


Story by Jackie Powder • Photography by Miss Mann/Thinkstock

Question: Can medical marijuana laws help contain the prescription painkiller overdose epidemic, which claims nearly 15,000 lives annually?

A first-of-its-kind study, led by the Bloomberg School’s Colleen Barry and Brendan Saloner and published in the August 25 JAMA Internal Medicine, yields some promising answers.

The rate of opioid painkiller overdose deaths was 25 percent lower, on average, in states that allow the medical use of marijuana—typically used to treat chronic and severe pain (despite its potential harmful effects)—than in other states from 1999 to 2010.

3 Takeaways

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With an estimated 1,700 lives saved in 2010 alone, medical marijuana use may have an unexpected benefit.

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In states with medical marijuana laws, medical marijuana may be replacing or supplementing opioid painkillers to manage chronic pain.

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Medical marijuana is not a magic bullet—more research is needed to identify solutions to fight prescription painkiller addiction and overdose.

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