The abuse of narcotic painkillers like Oxycodone - and, increasingly, fentanyl - is a massive problem in North America. It's estimated that as many as 46 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day - and that number continues to grow.

Medical marijuana presents a safer alternative to opioids, which are lethal in large doses and regularly over-prescribed,. According to a recent study that examined 13 states with medical cannabis laws passed between 1999 and 2010, states that allowed medical marijuana had a 24.8 percent lower annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states where the plant is prohibited.

The study also found states with medical marijuana had "a lower rate of overdose mortality that generally strengthened over time." With every year after legalization, there were fewer reported deaths associated with narcotic painkillers.

In most cases, the people who end up fatally overdosing are addicts - the people most likely to take too much of the drug. Cannabis doesn't present that kind of risk.

Low risk of addiction with marijuana

Jahan Marcu is the Chief Scientist at Americans for Safe Access, and a court-qualified expert on cannabis and contributor to The Journal Of Cannabis In Clinical Practice, Project CBD, and the Philadelphia Examiner. He told Civilized cannabis is much less addictive than other drugs.

"Definitely compared to nicotine, cocaine, and opiates, people who use cannabis have a very low chance of developing dependence," he said.

"Some doubt whether cannabis-use disorder even exists," said Dr. Marcu. "You can develop a habitual use disorder, but it will take a lot of cannabis and a long time. Living to get the drug, rock bottom addiction basically never happens with just cannabis."

Medical marijuana and traditional opioid pain relievers also aren't mutually exclusive. Surprisingly, a recent University of California study found patients needed smaller doses of narcotics to achieve the same relief when they used medical marijuana at the same time. Those who inhaled cannabis via a vaporizer needed as little as one-quarter of their previous dose of opiates.

As better data becomes available on the health impacts of medical marijuana versus traditional, opioid pain relievers, it's becoming clear that new legislation could save lives.

As Dr. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer at Phoenix House, a national nonprofit addiction treatment agency, told Newsweek: "[U.S.] states that pass progressive laws to treat addiction may be more likely to lower their rates of overdose deaths."