A record 47,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the US in 2014, some 13,000 more than those killed on the country's roads in the same year, and 5,000 more than the 42,000 deaths in the peak mortality year of 1995 in the HIV/Aids epidemic.
The National Governors Association is calling for the development of a new strategy to combat the growing epidemic, focusing on "treatment protocols" for helping addicts, as well as devising stricter new regulations for the pharmaceutical companies that distribute the drugs, reported the New York Times. "We must prioritize treatment for substance use disorder, a medical disease that needs our care and compassion," the NGA wrote in a statement.
But before the governors came up with their strategy, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had another suggestion to battle overdose deaths: legalize marijuana.
In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Warren urged the agency to consider both the effectiveness of medical marijuana as a safe alternative to opioids for treatment of pain and the potentially positive impact of marijuana legalization on reducing overdoses, adding: "Opioid abuse is a national concern and merits swift and immediate action."
"I hope that the CDC continues to explore every opportunity available to work with states and other federal agencies on ways to tackle the opioid epidemic and collect information about alternative pain relief options," said Warren.
Medical researchers have found a link between a reduction in overdose deaths and increased access to medical marijuana.
"Opioid analgesic overdose mortality continues to rise in the US, driven by increases in prescribing for chronic pain," noted a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. "Because chronic pain is a major indication for medical cannabis, laws that establish access to medical cannabis may change overdose mortality related to opioid analgesics in states that have enacted them."
In fact, that's what the researchers found: "Examination of the association between medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in each year after implementation of the law [legalising marijuana] showed that such laws were associated with a lower rate of overdose mortality that generally strengthened over time."
Overdoses dropped 24.8%, resulting in 1,729 fewer deaths in 2010 alone when medical marijuana was legalized in some states, according to the study.
Researchers couldn't demonstrate a direct causal link between pot legalisation and overdose deaths. But a 2015 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that states with marijuana dispensaries experienced a significant drop in both opioid addiction and overdose deaths.