Medical Marijuana Might Reduce Opioid Overdoses

Newly published research indicates that medical marijuana laws reduce overdose deaths from abuse of Oxycontin and other opiods by a statistically — and economically — significant amount.

Examining state laws permitting medical use of marijuana that passed between 1999 and 2010, Dr. Marcus Bachhuber and colleagues estimate that medical marijuana reduces the number of overdose deaths by 25 percent.

That adds up to lots of savings. Sean Williams at the Motley Fool reviews the research on the cost of opiod abuse:

…[R]etail sales of hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone increased by 244%, 732%, and 1,177%, respectively, between 1997 and 2006. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health also estimated that 5.2 million people aged 12 and older had abused prescription opioids within the past month in a study conducted in 2007.

…[T]he average per-person healthcare cost to payer was $15,884 for opioid abusers compared to just $1,830 for those who didn’t abuse opioids — more than eight times higher! These costs stem from higher emergency department and outpatient visits, a greater need for mental health evaluations and substance abuse treatment, and a much higher propensity to need treatment for comorbidities (i.e.,the presence of two more chronic diseases in a patient at the same time) which are considerably more expensive to treat in abusers compared to nonabusers.

The recently published study did not look at non-fatal consequences of opiod abuse, nor did it do an economic analysis of the reduction in the number of events. However, it would be hard not to suspect that allowing these abusers the legal option of switching to medical marijuana would reduce costs, as well as harm to the abusers.

As well, the study was conducted before Oxycontin was reformulated in 2010 to make it harder to solubize or crush, which is necessary to inject or inhale it. The reformulation resulted in a reduction in Oxycontin abuse. However, abusers switched to heroin, according to a study published in 2012, which concluded that the older drug “may pose a much greater overall risk to public health than OxyContin.” So, the relative benefit of medical marijuana may be even greater today than before 2010.

(On the other hand, we note that Colorado saw a dramatic increase in ER use and stoned driving soon after legalizing casual and recreational use of marijuana. Maybe medical marijuana is the appropriate, measured response to these trade-offs in a free society.)

Comments (8)

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  1. Devon Herrick says:

    “…[T]he average per-person healthcare cost to payer was… more than eight times higher!”

    I wonder if some of this isn’t due to opioid abuse. Rather, some of the people who begin using opioids are those who have multiple conditions and opioids are merely an escape. I can imagine some people with multiple conditions (somewhat due to poor lifestyle choices) may prefer to be comfortable numb.

    • Ron Greiner says:

      They give pain relievers to 16-year-old cheerleaders who have a little pain because of exercise. These docs don’t consider that this could be the 1st step in destroying their life.

      I went to Iowa State University (ISU) on a wresting scholarship, #1 team in America at the TIME, and I never took pain killers and I had a whole bunch of pains.

      You are right Dr. Graham, this is a free society, or at least it used to be, before the War on Drugs and filling our prisons and dogs everywhere just like the NAZI’s.

    • John R. Graham says:

      Agreed. I doubt very much that switching an opioid addict to marijuana will reduce all his or her medical costs to the median.

      • Ron Greiner says:

        JAMA reported that 49 people a day die in the United States every day from pain killer OD’s and the 13 states that legalized Medical Marijuana found a 25% reduction in deaths. I didn’t know they were also talking about saving money.

        I know my little brother is on his way to the Mayo Clinic to try and find something to relieve his pain. He said, “It’s like 6 toothaches plus sticking your finger a light socket and it lasts for 5 seconds.” Then he continued, “Can you imagine those people who it lasts for a minute? Maybe I’m going there but that hasn’t happened yet.”

        His current medication makes him feel like he is drunk all day. Which makes it very difficult to work. Trust me, some people have intense pain and are looking for answers. The tough part is he still has an eleven year old to raise.

        • John R. Graham says:

          JAMA article wasn’t talking about saving money. I was trying to connect a couple of different articles. That’s one way I try to add value to the blog!

          • Ron Greiner says:

            You do add value. I told you that right away. I now come here much more often since you add your value.

            • John R. Graham says:

              Thank you. Please send your donation to the Dallas office! (Not kidding, we are an educational charity that relies 100 percent on donations.)

  2. Big Truck Joe says:

    How’s about we just crack down on doctors who illegally prescribe or over prescribe oxycontin and prosecute the pharmacies and pharmaceutical distributors like Cardinal and McKesson who ship and dispense too many of these addictive controlled substances. And use the same kind of fanatical oversight on doctors prescribing medical marijuana – which seems to be prescribed (abused) by doctors to way too many white males in their early 20s who allegedly suffer from aches and pains and thus warrant a medical pass to smoke pot. The solutions are easy but the political will to do what’s right for the patient is hard.