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Could Medical Marijuana be the Answer to Rhode Island's Heroin Epidemic?

Published in late 2013, a report released by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) disclosed that the state of Rhode Island was ranked 13th in regards to states with the highest drug overdose mortality rate. This trend has continued into 2014 as the state reports an increase in the use of heroin and other opiates. By April 2014, 72 deaths had occurred as the result of an accidental overdose, almost all due to heroin or Fentanyl, (which is another powerful opioid). However, new research indicates that medical marijuana may be an ideal option to substantially lessen the epidemic in Rhode Island, as well as the rest of the United States.

The study completed at the Philadelphia Veterans Affair Medical Center and was published on the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine website. It found that states that legalized medical marijuana prior to 2010 had a 24.8 percent lower yearly death rate from opioid overdoses than states where medical marijuana was illegal.

Dr. Marcus A. Bachhuber, who led the study reports, “In summary, although we found a lower mean annual rate of opioid analgesic mortality in states with medical cannabis laws, a direct causal link cannot be established.”

He continued with the following statement. “If the relationship between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality is substantiated in further work, enactment of laws to allow for use of medical cannabis may be advocated as part of a comprehensive package of policies to reduce the population risk of opioid analgesics.”

It is important to understand that the published research does not mean that heroin overdoses and medical marijuana are linked in any way. It simply raises questions regarding the role of opioids as a pain treatment option. Within the past decade, the percent of patients receiving opiates has greatly increased, according to the CDC. Many heroin addicts started with opioids prescriptions before moving on to heroin. While only one published study supports medical marijuana as a potential treatment for pain, many believe that there are certainly more studies with similar results to come.

Could the use of medical marijuana instead of prescription painkillers reduce the number of heroin addicts in Rhode Island? The current Director of Regulate states, “These research results must not be taken out of context, but they overall signal that medical marijuana is a safer alternative to opiates, because there is much less chance of addiction and death."

Before a case can be made for prescribing medical marijuana for pain over prescription opioids, more research is needed. The Executive Director of the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island, David Spencer supports continued research to determine the effects of medical marijuana in relation to opiate addiction, so that definitive advantages can be noted.

Spencer stated, “I don’t know if this study shows that a link can be made at this point in time; more research should definitely occur. With this being said, our organization is a big advocate of treatment so that people can get their lives back together; we don’t want to advocate for supplementing one drug with another.”

Only time will tell how the heroin epidemic in Rhode Island is handled, but medical marijuana may provides some treatment options.

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