With deaths from opioid overdoses on the rise, new ways of treating pain without having to resort to highly addictive painkillers are being sought -- and the answer might be found in legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes.
A new study published in the medical journal "Drug and Alcohol Dependence" found that hospitalization rates for opioid painkiller dependence and abuse decreased 23 percent in states in which marijuana was legalized for medicinal use, according to Reuters.
Hospitalization rates for opioid overdoses also dropped an average of 13 percent, the study found.
"Instead, medical marijuana laws may have reduced hospitalizations related to opioid pain relievers," said Yuyan Shi, a public health professor at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the study.
"This study and a few others provided some evidence regarding the potential positive benefits of legalizing marijuana to reduce opioid use and abuse, but they are still preliminary," she told Reuters in an email.
Dr. Esther Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland and who was not involved in the study, said the study's suggestion that marijuana could be used to replace opioids could have some benefits.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that battling the opioid epidemic will require a multi-pronged approach and a good deal of creativity," said Choo. "Could increased liberalization of marijuana be part of the solution? It seems plausible."
But Choo also remains skeptical until more information is uncovered.
"[T]here is still much we need to understand about the mechanisms through which marijuana policy may affect opioid use and harms," she said.
This isn't the first study to suggest that medical marijuana leads to decreased opioid dependency.
In July 2016, economist W. David Bradford, the Busbee Chair in Public Policy at the University of Georgia, and his daughter, Ashley Bradford, released a study that analyzed data on prescriptions filled by Medicare recipients between 2010 and 2013. The Bradfords found that states with legalized medical marijuana saw a significant drop in the number of painkiller prescriptions, reported TIME.
On average, doctors in states with legalized medical marijuana prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers per year.
"What we hope people take away from this is that when marijuana becomes available as a clinical option, physicians and patients together are reacting as if marijuana is medicine," said Bradford.
According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), 19 states have operational medical marijuana systems. Several more have some form of limited medical marijuana law, including use of cannabinoid oils, in place.