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Marijuana might reduce painkiller abuse, study says

As Florida voters face an amendment that could legalize medical marijuana this November, a study suggests it could lower rates of painkiller abuse.

The research found that deaths associated with opiate abuse fell in 13 states after they legalized medical use of marijuana, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine.

The findings were shared just days after the federal government announced it was finalizing new restrictions on drugs that contain hydrocodone, a highly addictive painkiller and now the most-prescribed drug.

“Yes, opioid overdoses are a national problem,” said Dr. Scott Teitelbaum, a UF psychiatry professor and medical director of the Florida Recovery Center, a rehab clinic at UF Health. “They don’t heal a wound. They change the brain’s perception of pain. But is the solution pot? I don’t think so.”

Teitelbaum said the study shows a correlation between the decline in opioid-related overdoses and medical marijuana, but it does not prove medical marijuana legalization caused the decline. There are many factors that weren’t considered in the study, he said, like when the medical marijuana laws were implemented in each state and whether the decline could be attributed to the use of opioid blockers, which treat addiction.

“This is kind of jumping from A to Z,” Teitelbaum said.

In Florida, prescription drugs are present in more drug-related deaths than illegal substances are, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, but it said drugs are not limited to opioids.

State records show opioid-related deaths decreased between 2011 and 2012, according to the most recent report available. Records also showed that marijuana was one of the most commonly present substances in drug-related deaths, but it never was the cause of deaths.

But research on marijuana at UF is still up in the air.

Even if medical marijuana is legalized in Florida this November, UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said the university cannot conduct medical marijuana research because UF relies heavily on federal funding, and the drug is still illegal in the federal realm.

Per federal law, Sikes said the university can apply for permits to conduct medical marijuana research but cannot grow or cultivate the plant.

“I am aware of at least one researcher who plans to conduct research on medical marijuana at some point in the future,” Sikes wrote in an email. “We have conducted research on other regulated drugs in the past. These researchers must comply with federal regulations about how that is done.”

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[A version of this story ran on page 5 on 8/28/2014 under the headline "Marijuana might reduce painkiller abuse, study says"]

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