A multi-institution study, led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, has shown that states which allow medical use of marijuana are experiencing sharply lower deaths due to opioid overdoses.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, analyzed a time-series analysis of medical cannabis laws and state-level death certificate data in the United States from 1999 to 2010; all 50 states were included. It examined the rate of deaths caused by opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2010.

Results revealed that on average, the 13 states allowing the use of medical marijuana had a 24.8 percent lower annual opioid overdose mortality rate after the laws were enacted than states without the laws, indicating that the alternative treatment may be safer for patients suffering from chronic pain related to cancer and other conditions.

Additional results of the study show that the relationship between lower opioid overdose deaths and medical marijuana laws strengthened over time; deaths were nearly 20 percent lower in the first year after a state’s law was implemented, and 33.7 percent lower five years after implementation. While safer treatment of chronic pain may help to explain lower rates of overdose deaths, medical marijuana laws may also change the way people misuse or abuse opioid painkillers, as marijuana and opioids stimulate similar areas in the brain’s pathways.

The authors suggest that as more states implement medical marijuana laws, future studies should examine the association between such laws and opioid overdoses to confirm their findings.

The study is available here.

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