Does medical marijuana reduce opiate deaths?

Posted: Updated:
By Christina O'Haver By Christina O'Haver

PHOENIX -- It is the most common reason people seek medical marijuana: chronic pain.

And while the jury may still be out on just how effective it is, a new study says medical marijuana appears to be having a positive effect on another health risk, which is killing Americans at a record rate.

“When you made it into your 20s, the typical reason for death a few years ago was always an accident,“ said Dr. Frank Lovecchio. He is co-medical director of Banner Health's Poison Control Center and told us accidents have been replaced by a new killer.

“For the first time in our country's history, we have surpassed that with overdose death in that critical area 25 to 45," he said.

And more specifically, overdose from opiate painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone, both heavily prescribed in the United States.

”We use about 99 percent of all the hydrocodone prescriptions," Lovecchio said. "Hydrocodone includes drugs like Vicodan, Loratab, etcetera, and we encompass about 80 percent of the oxycodone and OxyContin prescriptions in the world."

But Lovecchio says a new study is raising interesting questions about whether we can slow the use and possible abuse of these drugs.

“So they compared states that have medical marijuana versus those neighboring states that don't have it and showed that the opiate death rate was about 25 percent less," he said.

Arizona was not included in that study because our law is still relatively new.

Lovecchio says more studies need to be done on just how effective marijuana truly is at controlling pain but adds, “There is a suggestion, at least in this study, that perhaps it lessens the amount of painkillers you take.”

And he believes it is worth looking at more closely if it can help reverse a deadly trend.

”The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 1999 reported about 4,000 opiate deaths, and four years later it rose four times," he said. "So it is very, very dangerous trend.“