Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Study suggests medical marijuana reduces opiate overdoses

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests medical marijuana reduces opiate overdoses.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests medical marijuana reduces opiate overdoses.

In a finding that could ripple through Florida, a study released this week reported that the average number of narcotic painkiller overdoses in medical marijuana states is 25 percent lower than would be expected if pot use weren't legal.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, estimated a reduction of about 1,700 overdoses in 2010 in the 13 states that had medical marijuana systems up and running then.

The association seemed to strengthen as years passed. Overdose rates averaged 20 percent lower than expected a year after medical marijuana was allowed and 33 percent lower by the sixth year.

"This suggests an unexpected public health benefit from medical marijuana laws,'' said lead author Marcus Bachhuber, a researcher at Philadelphia's VA Medical Center.

The numbers did not prove cause and effect. In fact, the authors said that unrelated factors — like cultural shifts — might account for the lower overdose rates.

But they theorized that marijuana might lead people to take fewer painkillers. Or perhaps pot relaxes people, so they take fewer anti-anxiety drugs and anti-depressants that can lead to "drug cocktail" overdoses.

Severe pain is by far the dominant diagnosis among medical pot users in the medical marijuana states that keep statistics. In Colorado, 94 percent of patients list it as a symptom.

Opioid painkillers, like OxyContin and Percocet, sometimes work poorly for chronic pain patients because tolerance builds, Maine physicians Marie Hayes and Mark Brown noted in JAMA's commentary section.

"The striking implication (of the study) is that medical marijuana laws . . . may represent a promising approach for stemming runaway rates'' of opiate overdose.

Floridians will vote Nov. 4 on proposed constitutional Amendment 2, which would allow medical marijuana with a doctor's certificate. Advocates and opponents offered differing views Tuesday of the JAMA study.

"Having marijuana available as an alternative to dangerous narcotics could decrease their use and abuse in our state,'' said Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care. "Opponents of Amendment 2 trying to scare voters by likening medical marijuana to pill mills clearly need to find a new argument.''

Calvina Fay, executive director of St. Petersburg's Drug Free America Foundation, disagreed.

"Much more research must be done before making a far-reaching conclusion that medical marijuana laws reduce opiate overdose,'' she said.

Among other things, the 13 states studied had high opiate overdose rates before they passed medical marijuana laws. Opiate overdose rates rose more slowly after passage, plateaued, then dropped — but still remained above the national average.

Perhaps authorities in those states were worried about their opioid problems, Fay theorized. Or, maybe more aggressive educational, rehabilitative and law enforcement efforts led to lower overdose rates — not medical marijuana.

The study did factor in prescription drug monitoring programs through 2010 and found no significant effect on opiate overdoses in those 13 states. But not all state systems are equal, Fay said.

When Florida's program went into effect in 2011, she said, opioid deaths dropped from 3,828 to 2,577 in one year.

"We accomplished this without the need to legalize marijuana, another addictive and damaging drug that is highly abused.''

Chemicals in pot plug into brain receptors that reduce pain, said Eckerd College biology professor Gregory Gerdeman. Pot is less powerful than narcotics but augments their painkilling effects.

"In studies of both animals and humans, pain patients can add a little cannabis into the mix and reduce opiate use and get the same relief,'' Gerdeman said.

"This study shows to a surprising degree that that outcome may already be happening.''

The study has limitations and begs for thorough followup, Gerdeman said. But the statistical methodology is solid and "I was surprised to see the effect emerge as strongly as it did.''

The study looked at California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Ten other states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws since 2010, but those systems are not yet functioning or have track records too brief to measure.

The researchers examined how opiate overdoses fluctuated from 1999 through 2010, comparing rates before and after medical marijuana laws were enacted. (California, Oregon, Washington, Maine and Alaska had passed their laws by 1999 so overdose rates before passage for those five states were not included.)

The study model also compared overdose trends in medical marijuana states to trends in states without such laws.

These measurements then projected what the average overdose rates would have been in the 13 states had they not passed medical marijuana laws. The real average was about 25 percent lower and by 2009 and 2010 was actually dropping.

In their review, Hayes and Brown note that state medical marijuana systems are varied and evolving. "If medical marijuana laws afford a protective effect, it is not clear why.''

Clearwater's Dani Hall doesn't care why. She just knows she used narcotics for five years after four surgeries for degenerative discs and the pain never went away.

"I was exhausted. I was staying in bed and depressed. I had to walk with a cane or walker,'' said the 34-year-old stay-at-home mom and college student.

When a doctor wanted to insert a morphine pump, Hall said, "I thought I was going to die anyway. I might as well give marijuana a shot.''

The pain lessened, she said, and "I could sleep at night and I could eat. I felt like a normal person.''

After about four months, she said, she weaned off opioids and stopped smoking the pot.

Study suggests medical marijuana reduces opiate overdoses 08/26/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 10:04pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Justin Timberlake in Super Bowl halftime show for first time since 'wardrobe malfunction'

    Celebrities

    Justin Timberlake has finally been invited back to the Super Bowl halftime show, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson caused a national controversy.

    Singer Janet Jackson covers her breast as Justin Timberlake holds part of her costume after her outfit came undone during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in 2004. The NFL announced Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, that Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 4 in Minnesota, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson cause a national controversy. [Associated Press]
  2. Here's what happened when 30 high school sophomores gave up their phones for a day

    K12

    LUTZ — They were everywhere at Steinbrenner High School. Teens with panic-stricken faces, furiously slapping one thigh, then the other.

    Grace Hayes, 15, left, and Kai'Rey Lewis, 15, talk and text friends after having a discussion about smartphone technology in Tiffany Southwell's English Literature class at Steinbrenner High last week. Southwell asked theme to give up their phones for a day and write about it. For Lewis, the ride home that day "was the longest bus ride in my life." [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  3. Cuban media treats visit by Tampa City Council as historic event

    Politics

    TAMPA — Delegations of one kind or another have been traveling from Tampa to Cuba for years, even before President Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations between the two countries in December 2014.

    A Tampa delegation to Cuba this week was featured prominently in reports by the state-run media in Cuba, including Granma. From left are Tampa City Council vice chair Harry Cohen, St. Petersburg City Council Chair Darden Rice, Tampa philanthropist David Straz and Tampa City Council Chair Yolie Capin.
  4. As the curtain rises on the Straz Center's biggest shows, the spotlight is on parking

    Transportation

    TAMPA — The Broadway Series, the most lucrative shows of the year for the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, start this week, and this year the center wants all the drama to take place on stage, not during the drive to the theater.

    With downtown Tampa getting busier at night and on weekends, city officials and administrators from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts have been working on ways to unsnarl traffic and help visitors find parking when there are lots of events at the same time. CHRIS ZUPPA   |   Times (2009)

  5. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
Casimar Naiboa pleads for help to capture the killer of his son, Anthony Naiboa. Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed near 15th Street N. and E. Frierson Avenue after getting off the wrong bus in Seminole Heights. A peaceful march that began on east New Orleans Avenue was held during the candlelight vigil for the three victims who were killed in the recent shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday, October 22, 2017.