Massachusetts has a public health emergency, Governor Patrick has declared. Opiate addiction is on the rise, resulting in hundreds of overdose deaths — and it’s not just Massachusetts. Between 1999 and 2011, overdose deaths nationwide increased by 118 percent.

In response to this crisis, the state Legislature has appropriated millions for more addiction treatment beds, has ordered insurers to cover treatment, and has put Narcan, which can reverse opiate overdoses, into the hands of thousands of emergency responders.

Massachusetts also has a medical marijuana regulatory effort — enacted by the voters two years ago — that has been plagued by bureaucratic infighting, litigation and ridiculous delays. The first dispensaries were supposed to open well over a year ago, but people with legitimate medical needs are still waiting.

How are these connected? The JAMA Internal Medicine website reports a new study that found in states that have established legal medical marijuana regimes, there are 25 percent fewer deaths each year from opiate overdoses.

As has long been the case with marijuana, much research still needs to be done, a process that has been stalled for decades by federal law and regulatory restrictions on research. But there is ample anecdotal evidence from pain patients who have found that using marijuana relieves their symptoms better than opiate-based pain medications, without the drowsiness and addiction other medications bring. Many pain patients also report that they can use lower doses of opiate-based painkillers if taken in combination with marijuana. Lower doses would mean fewer overdoses.

The recent surge in heroin addiction is widely attributed to a sharp increase in the use of addictive, opiate-based painkillers. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the number of non-cancer patients being prescribed opiate-based pain relievers has doubled over the last decade. Addicts turn to heroin when they can no longer afford or obtain …read more