Nearly 50,000 Americans die by drug overdose each year, but that fact is not as simple as it may seem. Most of these deaths are caused not by illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine but by prescription painkillers – legal medication meant to help people, not kill them.

That’s a very serious problem. Roughly 20,000 people die of prescription overdoses annually in the United States, and opioid painkillers are the No. 1 reason.

But how did we get to this point, and what can we do about it? Could marijuana help?

The opioid problem, which has grown to epidemic scale in recent years, is driven by a wave of addiction that started in the 1990s. That was the decade when medical science became convinced the nation suffered from a tidal wave of poorly treated pain. Roughly 100 million Americans endured chronic, intractable pain, and physicians scrambled to find an answer.

Study underestimated dangers of legal opioids

It came to them in 1996, when a prominent pain doctor released findings suggesting the medical community should treat pain as a “fifth vital sign,” along with blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, and temperature. That announcement, coupled with a small (ultimately unreliable) study on opiate addiction, convinced drug companies and physicians a highly addictive, potentially lethal prescription drug was in fact neither particularly addictive nor especially lethal.

Watch: How marijuana could helf fight the opioid epidemic

And then, over the next 20 years, everything went wrong. The small opiate study fell apart. Addiction rates soared as Oxycontin, Percocet, and other forms of legal “hillbilly heroin” spread across the Eastern United States and then the rest of the country. Addicts who ran out of pills or prescriptions or money turned to street heroin instead. Either way, many millions got hooked and many thousands died.

A safer alternative

Now the medical community is desperately looking for new approaches to pain and addiction. Marijuana, as it turns out, may be one of their best options.

Medical Marijuana Safer Than Opioid Painkilers

There are two reasons for this. First, a fair amount of hard scientific data suggests cannabis is an effective treatment for chronic pain (though less helpful in treating severe acute pain). Many states now include intractable pain on the list of conditions that qualify for medical marijuana.

Pot, of course, doesn’t kill. It has a zero fatality rate and causes almost no long-term health problems, making it a much safer alternative to drugs such as Oxy and Vicodin.

Less addictive

The second reason marijuana may help fight the opioid crisis is that its users rarely get hooked on it. Cannabis has an addiction rate below 10 percent while heroin hooks at least 23 percent of its users. The numbers may be even higher for prescription painkillers.

That means cannabis could be used as an effective, relatively harmless means of treating long-running pain. And there is no doubt that’s important: America’s pain problem is very real, even if the original attempt to solve it backfired spectacularly.

Of course, if that attempt hadn’t been so misguided, musician Prince and untold thousands of other people might still be alive. That’s why it’s so critical policy makers look to pot as a possible way out. People die with needles in their arms every day. No one has ever toked to death. That’s not a hard choice.


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