A new study suggests that in states where it’s legal, some people use pot to manage their chronic health conditions, rather than more addictive and deadly prescription opioids.
There’s been a threefold increase in the prescription of strong painkillers since 1999, and the drugs now kill more people than car crashes. The problem has escalated so rapidly that last week the DEA tightened restrictions on when and how patients could obtain the prescriptions.
There’s another substance that may help with chronic pain, though: Medical marijuana. According to a study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, the 13 states that had legalized medical marijuana prior to 2010 had a 25 percent lower rate of opioid mortality than those that didn’t. This equates to roughly 1,729 fewer painkiller deaths, just in 2010. The results suggest, in other words, that people were choosing pot over Percocet.
There are a few limitations to keep in mind. The rate of opioid deaths increased in all the states, it just increased less in the states that allowed medical marijuana. It’s not as though everyone with a backache bought a water bong and lived stoned and pain-free ever after.
Marijuana is also not a perfect replacement for painkillers, though it does have some analgesic effects. And there might be something else about those states entirely that was responsible for the drop-off in opioid deaths. Finally, say it with me: Correlation does not equal causation.
We still need more research, but this study suggests that marijuana is, in fact, a substitute but for prescription painkillers, not booze. And since drug overdose death rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1990, this might turn out to be an unexpected public-health benefit of legalization.