It’s no secret that there’s a painkiller problem of vast proportions going on in the United States. In the last 15 years, there has been a surge in the number of opiate prescriptions written as a well as a staggering number of deaths annually, due to abuse and overdose.  According to the CDC, In 2013 alone, over 16,000 people died from overdosing on prescription painkillers. But, there is a ray of sunshine amidst this dismal storm. There is a new study which suggests that in some states which provide easy access to marijuana, the brakes are being applied to this otherwise heartbreaking epidemic.  

In this study, researchers from the RAND Corporation and the University of California-Irvine (UCI) looked to see if, in the years following legalization, there had been a reduction in fatal overdoses and admissions to addiction treatment centers due to opioid abuse.

What the researchers discovered was that in states that had legal marijuana dispensaries, there were marked reductions in both overdoses and treatment center admissions relating to opioid abuse.

The study found that in states where prescriptions for marijuana are legal but dispensaries are illegal, there wasn't any data to indicate a decrease substance abuse or opiate-related deaths. However, in states where medical marijuana dispensaries are legal, there was a 16% reduction in opioid deaths and a 28% decrease admissions to treatment facilities for opioid abuse.  

Critics of marijuana dispensaries often accuse them of opening the gates towards legalization across the board. In a few states, once a doctor provides a medical marijuana card to the patient, that patient can purchase marijuana whenever and where ever marijuana is sold. In Los Angeles for instance, a person can purchase a medical marijuana card for around $40. and legally buy marijuana immediately afterward. 

Many claim that this ease in obtaining cannabis could lead to abuse. But, on the flip side, it may be this ease that makes it more difficult to abuse marijuana as dispensaries, which are heavily regulated, might also be instrumental in preventing fatal opioid overdoses.

The study conducted by Rand/UCI showed that there wasn’t a reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions written in the sates with dispensaries. What this might mean is that the reduction in opioid abuse in these states isn’t so much from patients changing their prescriptions from opioids to cannabis, but instead patients who  who were taking opioids that were obtained illegally and replacing those drugs with legal weed. To put it another way: the research strongly indicates that the dispensaries may have been instrumental preventing opioid overdoses in some people who used painkiller recreationally. They were able to stop taking often harmful painkillers once the got a prescription for cannabis.  

That is not to say that chronic use of marijuana is free from causing harm. Research into the topic of marijuana abuse has been scant due to government restrictions and funding for such studies. But, there is no record of anyone overdosing on marijuana and dying.

 If opening more dispensaries does alleviate a chunk of the opioid crisis, why restrict them?