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By Steve Birr
States with medical marijuana programs are experiencing substantially lower rates of opioid addiction and overdoses, according to a new research study.
Critics of legal marijuana programs often fear access to the plant will have a negative impact on public health, but the study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, found in states with legal weed hospital visits for complications from prescription painkillers is dropping. The hospitalization rate for opioid abuse and dependence in states with medical marijuana are roughly 23 percent lower than states without legal access, reports NBC News.
Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses are on average 13 percent lower than states without medical marijuana programs.
“Medical marijuana laws may have reduced hospitalizations related to opioid pain relievers,” Yuyan Shi, public health professor at the University of California and study author, told NBC News. “This study and a few others provided some evidence regarding the potential positive benefits of legalizing marijuana to reduce opioid use and abuse, but they are still preliminary.”
Medical researchers are not claiming pot will “solve” the opioid epidemic, but the study adds to a growing body of evidence that marijuana can be an effective alternative to the painkillers that often lead to heroin abuse. Research released in February from the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria suggests patients suffering from chronic pain and mental health conditions will choose marijuana over their addictive prescription drugs when doctors give them a choice.
Roughly 63 percent of patients in the study chose marijuana due to reduced side effects and because it is far less addictive than their prescription medication. Patients also said they were better able to manage their symptoms by using weed.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that battling the opioid epidemic will require a multi-pronged approach and a good deal of creativity,” Dr. Esther Choo, professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, told NBC News. “Could increased liberalization of marijuana be part of the solution? It seems plausible.”
A record 33,000 Americans died from opioid related overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 and eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015.