It’s possible that legalizing medical marijuana has resulted in states having fewer deaths due to painkiller overdoses. That’s according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Internal Medicine.

Based on statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug-overdose deaths have steadily increased over the last 20 years and are now the leading cause of injury death in the U.S. More than half of those deaths in 2011 were related to prescription medications.

This new study reviewed medical marijuana laws and death-certificate data from all 50 states between 1999 and 2010. Researchers found that there was a definite reduction in painkiller-overdose deaths in states that enacted laws allowing for the use of medical marijuana.

According to lead study author, Dr. Marcus Bachhuber, “We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription-painkiller-overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law.”

The findings are positive and do seem to support the need for more research into the use of cannabinoids in pain management, but some experts say that the study was flawed and didn’t include all possible explanations for the decrease in overdose deaths. Kevin Sabet, director of the University of Florida’s Drug Policy Institute said, “The study failed to examine the influence of expanded methadone and buprenorphine programs in states, or the possible influence of major law-enforcement interventions, or even Naltrexone utilization. The study also did not take into account prevention campaigns or strategies.”

Even so, experts like Dr. Lynn Webster, a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and others at the AAPM feel that with more research medical marijuana could be a safer alternative to opioids for pain management for many patients. He added that this new study helps show that “the DEA should reschedule cannabinoids from Schedule I to Schedule II so that it will make it easier for research to be conducted.”

As of now, 23 states and the District of Columbia have laws that allow the use of medical marijuana. Based on this new study, and with more than 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain, increasing the number of states with these laws could save lives.

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