Could Medical Marijuana Solve the Painkiller Epidemic?

Aug 27, 2014 at 2:17 PM ET

When Shantel, a single mother and television producer, was diagnosed with lupus 20 years ago, doctors prescribed her all sorts of painkillers. The autoimmune disease caused severe bouts of pain and inflammation, and while opioid-based medications like Vicodin and Oxycontin helped control her symptoms, they also left her feeling brain-dead.

“I was a zombie,” says the 46-year-old from her home in Los Angeles. “I could not get out of bed. I couldn’t keep focused on my job. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t even respond to the needs of my child.”

Regardless of the debilitating side effects, sometimes the pain was so great that Chantel couldn’t live without the pills. She took increasingly higher doses and remembers days when she was “reaching for that bottle all the time.” This went on for a decade, until she discovered medical marijuana. “It truly changed my life,” says Shantel, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her identity. “I found something that I can take every day that doesn’t put me completely out of commission.”

As of this summer, 23 states have legalized pot for medical uses like alleviating chronic pain. Now a new study may spur others to follow their lead. According to research from the Pearlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, states with legalized medical marijuana experience fewer fatal opioid-related overdoses than states without such laws.

The study, which was published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at states’ death rates from opioid-based painkillers from 1999 to 2010. It found that in the first year after a state legalized medical marijuana, fatal painkiller overdoses decreased by 20 percent; after five years they dropped by 34 percent. Though researchers couldn’t prove that medicinal pot directly led to a reduction in opioid-related deaths, the results imply that marijuana could be promoted as a safer alternative to prescription pain meds.

“This study comes as absolutely no surprise,” says Dr. David Bearman, vice president of the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine and a specialist in addiction and pain management. “Most doctors who practice cannabinoid medicine have noticed a routine decrease of 30 to 50 percent in their patients’ reliance on opioid medications for the relief of pain.”

The FDA still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it’s a highly addictive drug with “no currently accepted medical use.” Meanwhile, prescription painkillers—which doctors dole out twice as much as they did 10 years ago—now kill more people each year in the U.S. than heroin and cocaine combined. Cannabis, by contrast, has not only been proven to relieve pain, but it also does so without this risk of a fatal overdose.

“The side effect profile of marijuana is one of the most reassuring things about it,” says Bearman. “And it doesn’t have any adverse reactions with other drugs. It’s almost too good to be true.”

One downside: People are likely to get stoned or groggy at higher doses. But for patients like Shantel, the occasional unwanted buzz is nothing compared with the ravages of painkillers.

“The worst thing that ever happened to me is that once I was very happy high for like three hours,” says Shantel, who sprays a low-THC tincture on her tongue whenever she experiences pain. “And yeah, I gained 20 pounds. But at least I’m not endangering myself.”