PAINKILLER LAW blog post: Does Marijuana Save Lives?

A new study out of the University of Pennsylvania says that opioid-related deaths have dropped significantly over several years in States which allow medical marijuana use. This study has generated heavy publicity, and has medical marijuana proponents proclaiming victory and vindication in the fight for Rx-420′s legitimacy and widespread acceptance.

However, and at the risk of getting med-mj boosters out of joint (sorry – couldn’t resist), the Penn study doesn’t really say that medical marijuana reduces opioid use, or addiction, or replaces opioids as the needed method of relief for patients in chronic pain. First, the study didn’t track pain patients using opioid medications to determine whether it was any of those folks who cut back on opioids to use medical marijuana instead. So a statement that opioid-related death rates drop in medical marijuana jurisdictions may be true numerically, but no one can say that “patients who could have suffered an opioid-related unintentional overdose were saved by relying more on medical marijuana for pain relief.” Unfortunately, the overly optimistic, factually unsupported conclusion is being enthusiastically embraced by advocates.

Additionally, while the study noted that medical marijuana may actually enhance the pain-killing effects of opioids such as Vicodin or Percocet, this doesn’t mean opioid medication is suddenly less potentially addictive, or that the tolerance/dependence risks of opioids abruptly fall away in the patient who also uses marijuana medicinally. It’s not as though medical marijuana should be seen as some sort of prophylactic against onset of opioid dependency. Opioids are still incredibly powerful drugs that have proven to be much more addictive than initially believed or advertised by their manufacturers. The Penn study changes none of that.

While the Penn study is certainly noteworthy and should spur closer examination of the issues it raises, it is not the history-altering game-changer many believe it to be. Like any medication, it’s not a cure-all, and there are risks in placing too much faith in it.

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