Allegheny County Considers Medical Marijuana to Counter Opioid Crisis

Allegheny County has one of the highest overdose death rates in the country, with over 50 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents in 2016. Facing these types of statistics, most would think that reducing access to drugs would be the only way to turn the problem around. Allegheny County is hoping that the introduction of a new drug will be a panacea.



The county approved the use of medical marijuana in 2017. Medical marijuana has long been used for pain management for patients with chronic pain issues. As the largest number of deaths in the county came from overdoses of fentanyl and heroin, Allegheny County is hoping that access to a different drug with nowhere near the level of overdose threat will be the main refuge of those dealing with pain issues, instead of seeking out higher and higher doses of prescription (or illicit) drugs.

“Marijuana is being used in more and more situations, even though the Federal government still continues to treat the drug as illegal regardless of the setting,” said Amato Sanita, a Pennsylvania Drug Crimes Attorney with Price Benowitz, LLP. “Individuals in Allegheny County caught in possession of marijuana without a prescription may still face criminal charges.”

Many individuals who end up facing charges of possession of opioids had their first interaction with the drugs when it was prescribed for the purposes of pain relief. For individuals with chronic pain, the first interaction may turn into a long-term struggle to control pain and gain access to opioids. Medical marijuana may provide an alternative for physicians and other providers who are seeking other ways to help their clients deal with pain, and if these care providers are able to cut down on a person’s likelihood of being introduced to opioids, it may have a long-term impact on the number of opioid deaths.



Studies have shown that there exists some correlation between the approval of either medical or recreational marijuana and a decrease in opioid overdose deaths. The research is not fully developed, but has come from legitimate sources, including the Journal of the American Medical Association, which has recently published papers showing decreases in opioid prescriptions in areas where medical marijuana has been approved. Allegheny County officials are hoping that correlation will equal causation in their county and drive down the number of overdose deaths.

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