In an article recently published in the New York Times it was reported that a recent study has found that states where medical Cannabis is legally available have shown a 25% average reduction in fatal prescription drug overdoses – specifically fatalities involving opioids, a class of drug that is commonly prescribed for the management of pain.
“. . . using state-level death certificate data from 1999 to 2010, my colleagues and I found that the annual rate of opioid overdose deaths decreased substantially — by 25 percent on average — following the passage of medical marijuana laws, compared to states that still had bans” – so wrote Colleen Barry, author of the article and senior author of the study, and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Professor Barry, who is also co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research, is however concerned about the possibility of unwarranted conclusions being drawn from the results of the study.
She says that her study is not evidence that cannabis can help cure opioid addiction. And says that this interpretation of her work is “particularly upsetting”.
Medical Cannabis and the management of chronic pain
With an estimated 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain, the use of opioid painkillers in the US is extremely widespread. According to the CDC, there were 28 000 deaths involving opioids in 2014, of which “at least half” were prescribed drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine and others – some 14 000 deaths in total.
Professor Barry states in her article in the New York Times that the most common complaint for which medical Cannabis is recommended by doctors is chronic or otherwise intractable pain. She goes on to speculate: “Could medical marijuana be a safer alternative to opioids for chronic pain management? If so, it would potentially reduce harms from opioid medicines.”
If Professor Barry’s speculation proves to be correct, then on the face of the information available some 3 500 deaths caused by opioid overdose could have been avoided if medical Cannabis had been available across the US in 2014.
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How many fatalities have occurred due to Cannabis use?
From a clinical point of view, (THC which is the substance produced by Cannabis that gives the plant it’s reputation) has extremely an extremely low toxicity, making fatal overdose almost impossible. There has never been any reliable report of a single death caused by the acute toxic effects of smoked or ingested Cannabis.
A green light for medical Cannabis?
Although there is much excitement about the potential efficacy of medical Cannabis in the treatment of a growing list of ailments, the consensus amongst the medical professionals is unanimous: rigorous, far-reaching research is urgently needed. Opinions do, however, vary on whether medical Cannabis should be made available, under what circumstances that should happen, and what controls need to be enforced.
Professor Barry is quoted on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health website as saying “As our awareness of the addiction and overdose risks associated with use of opioid painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin grows, individuals with chronic pain and their medical providers may be opting to treat pain entirely or in part with medical marijuana, in states where this is legal.”
With so many lives on the line, clarity in this area is very urgent indeed.
Call to Action: What are your feelings about this situation – have you considered this aspect of the Cannabis debate before? Do you feel that research is moving quickly enough? Are the changes to the laws around medical Cannabis adequate? Let us know your point of view.