The United States has a problem with painkillers. During the past 15 years, America has seen a tremendous growth in both the sales of prescription opiates and the number of people who die each year from abusing them. More than 16,000 people fatally overdosed on prescription painkillers in 2013, accounting for 60% of all overdose deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. But a new study suggests that some states have already stumbled onto a means of curbing this fatal epidemic: Easily-accessible marijuana.
For the study, researchers from the RAND Corporation and the University of California-Irvine (UCI) examined whether, in the years following legalization, states that legalized marijuana had experienced reductions in fatal overdoses and addiction treatment center admissions relating to opioid abuse. The researchers found that these states experienced significant reductions in both measures of opioid misuse — but only if they had also legalized marijuana dispensaries.
In the six states where doctors are allowed to prescribe marijuana, but where retail dispensaries are prohibited, the study found “no evidence” of “reductions in substance abuse or mortality.” But in those 18 states where medical marijuana shops are allowed, they found a 16% reduction in “opioid-related mortality” and 28% reduction in opioid-abuse treatment admissions.
Critics of marijuana dispensaries often accuse them of fostering an environment of de facto legalization. In some states, once a doctor provides a qualifying card, the patient can purchase marijuana virtually at will. As Vox’s German Lopez writes, “Just about anyone can go to Venice Beach in Los Angeles, pay around $40 for a card, and legally buy and smoke a joint within five minutes.”