Marijuana Might Actually be an Anti-Gateway Drug

July 15th 2015

People who have access to medical marijuana are less at risk of developing painkiller abuse or dying from prescription drug overdoses, a new study found.

The science of marijuana is not strongly settled. But as far as health benefits are concerned, researchers are at least confident that pot treats pain. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month agrees: On average, people reported "30 percent or greater improvement in pain with cannabinoid compared with placebo." 

JAMA researchers looked at the findings of 79 previously-published studies and determined that marijuana does, in fact, have a positive effect on people suffering from chronic pain. This is important because, when it comes to treating pain, opioid-based prescription medication is often the go-to drug for many healthcare professionals, and if a patient gets hooked, the consequences can be tragic and fatal. 

"These drugs are powerful painkillers with a potential for abuse because of their heroin-like effects," the Center for Disease Control explains. Further, "opioid-related overdose deaths now outnumber overdose deaths involving all illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine combined."

So if medical marijuana effectively treats pain, what does that say about the future of prescription drugs in America?

A second study from the National Bureau of Economic Research might have some answers. The researchers found that states with medical marijuana systems in place experience a "relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not." That is, access to medical pot means less painkiller problems

By examining treatment admissions—rehabilitations facilities, hospitals—for painkiller addiction and overdose rates from the National Vital Statistics System, they discovered that states with medical marijuana dispensaries have significantly lower levels of both admissions and deaths associated with prescription pain medication than in states where pot shops are prohibited. 

"If marijuana is used as a substitute for powerful and addictive pain relievers in medical marijuana states, a potential overlooked positive impact of medical marijuana laws may be a reduction in harms associated with opioid pain relievers, a far more addictive and potentially deadly substance," according to the study. "Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers."

This is a huge blow to the gateway drug theory of medical marijuana propagated by some critics.

In essence, this study shows that pot acts as an anti-gateway drug. Given the fact that painkiller abuse increasingly results in addicts seeking cheaper, more potent opioids (i.e. heroin) on the black market, medical marijuana appears to stop the cycle for some, giving patients relief without the risk of addiction or lethal overdose.

"While the number of fatal poisonings due to prescription pain medications quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, the distribution of opioid pain medication also quadrupled during the same period, demonstrating a parallel rise between the distribution of opioid pain medication and its abuse nationally," the NBER study reports.

Research shows access to medical marijuana reduces opioid-related treatment admissions by 15 to 35 percent.

"The fact that opioid harms decline in response to medical marijuana dispensaries raises some interesting questions as to the extent to which marijuana liberalization policies are potentially beneficial for public health. Marijuana is a far less addictive substance than opiates and the potential for overdosing is nearly zero."

It should be noted that this study doesn't simply look at the effect of medical marijuana laws in a state but the availability of the substance. Access to pot is associated with reductions in painkiller addiction and overdose rates, not just legalization or decriminalization policies. With prescription drug overdoses on the rise—60 percent of which are attributed to opioid-based medication, with over 16,000 deaths reported in 2010 alone—this research could be highly valuable as lawmakers consider reform proposals to the country's drug laws.

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