Don’t kid yourself—if you use an opioid-based pain drug, such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin or Dilaudid, it could kill you. Thousands of people who use opioids for pain control die from overdose each year—and the number is increasing. In fact, opioid-overdose deaths have quadrupled within 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and three out of four of these deaths involve prescription pain medications, not street drugs. Most of the people who die—60%—aren’t using the drugs illegally either. They have legitimate prescriptions. Houston, we have a problem. But how to get a handle on it?

Enter medical marijuana. A recent study has revealed some very interesting facts about medical marijuana and relief of chronic pain and patient safety. Meanwhile medical marijuana is becoming legal in more and more states. Here’s why you should be thinking about it if you or a loved one suffers from chronic pain…


A team of investigators from the University of Pennsylvania decided to take a look at the incidence of opioid-related deaths in states that have legalized medical marijuana. They reasoned that since pain control is a major reason why people use medical marijuana, states that have legalized or decriminalized the herb might have lower rates of opioid-related deaths.

To test its theory, the team analyzed medical marijuana laws and 10 years’ of death certificates from the entire United States. The research team discovered that, in states that allowed medical marijuana, the overall average annual death rate from opioid overdose was almost 25% lower than it was in states where medical marijuana remained illegal. Not only that, but the relationship grew stronger over time. When average death rates were looked at on a year-to-year basis, the researchers discovered that deaths from opioids decreased by an average 20% in the first year of medical marijuana legalization…25% by the second year…and up to 33% by the fifth and sixth years after medical marijuana was legalized.

Keep in mind that, whatever you might think of marijuana as a recreational drug, we are not talking about recreational use here—we are talking about marijuana as an alternative to potentially dangerous and addictive drugs that often lose effectiveness with long-term use and, thus, lead people with chronic pain to up their dosages to get the same effect.

Now, it’s true that the University of Pennsylvania study doesn’t show the degree to which the decline in opioid death rates in states with legal medical marijuana is due to patients switching from opioids to marijuana. More research is needed on that issue. And the study is not a carte blanche invitation for everyone with chronic pain to start using marijuana. Marijuana is not an across-the-board solution for everyone with intractable pain. But the study does provide yet more scientific evidence in support of marijuana as a medical treatment. At minimum, it suggests that rather than being a so-called “gateway drug” to opiate use, as we were told years ago, marijuana can be a lifesaving alternative to opiates.