Science has already demonstrated that medical marijuana has the potential to reduce deaths caused by heroin and other opiate drugs. Now a new study suggests weed can also cut down on opiate addictions.

OpiatesThe study is further proof that cannabis may be an effective substitute for opiates and other dangerous drugs. Though patients can also become addicted to weed, it happens rarely, and the consequences are typically much less severe.

The study was a collaboration between the RAND Corp., a public-policy think tank, and the University of California. It was authored by David Powell and Rosalie Pacula, both of RAND, and Mireille Jacobson of UC Irvine.

“Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers,” the researchers wrote.

States allowing MMJ saw drop in opiate abuse

The study examined admission records for patients seeking treatment for opiate addiction, as well as opiate overdose deaths in every state with medical marijuana. States that allow dispensaries saw a relative drop in opiate abuse and overdose deaths, while other MMJ states did not.

Earlier studies have demonstrated that cannabis can effectively reduce opiate deaths. Opiates are derived from the opium plant and include morphine and heroin; their synthetic cousins, opioids, are also highly addictive and potentially fatal.

“Drug store” opiates

Opiates and opioids are typically used to treat severe pain. The addicts who abuse these drugs often start out as legitimate patients in need of effective pain relief. They usually begin with Vicodin, Percocet, or other “drug store” opiates.

But these pills are relatively expensive, and prescriptions are hard to come by. Some addicts choose to rob pharmacies, while most others turn to the street. Heroin, the strongest opiate known to man, is cheap and incredibly potent.

Opiates overly responsible for drug deaths

Opiate overdoses account for a disproportionate number of prescription drug fatalities. Yet these painkillers are widely prescribed, especially for chronic pain.

Thankfully, weed is also good at treating pain. Some believe it may be more effective than opiates. And almost everyone agrees it’s much, much safer.

The study concluded that many patients are mixing pot and painkillers: Overall opiate distribution didn’t drop in states that allow dispensaries, even though deaths and addiction admissions did. Even so, the addition of cannabis may be saving lives, the authors said.

Study suggest mixing opiates with weed reduces overdoses

That’s because users who combine drugs are likely cutting back on opiate abuse. So even if the weed isn’t treating their pain – and it is – it’s providing a safer substitute for the deadly opiates.

Overall, the study suggests that states with dispensaries are seeing fewer opiate consequences than both states without dispensaries and states without any form of MMJ. That may be in part because the availability of weed leads users to buy less in the way of opiates.

The United States has reached the tail end of an era during which opiates were widely prescribed to treat what was viewed as an epidemic of chronic pain. That perception fueled a decades-long explosion in opiate use, a trend that has resulted in countless heroin addicts and untold overdose deaths.

Opinions are shifting

The pendulum has swung in the other direction. Now, doctors are more worried about the dependence and health hazards that come with opiate misuse. That leaves roughly 100 million people, all with chronic pain, stuck in a kind of healthcare limbo. The deadliest choice is also the easiest to get, while a much safer alternative lies outside the law.

The science on the benefits of marijuana is growing. So is skepticism about the benefits of opiate painkillers. Though these drugs are known to be helpful in treating acute pain, there is little science suggesting they are helpful in treating chronic pain. Still, many doctors prescribe them for just this purpose.

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