A file photo shows marijuana being weighed and packaged for...

A file photo shows marijuana being weighed and packaged for sale at a medical marijuana dispensary in Seattle. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / Ted S. Warren

Our nation now faces one of the worst drug epidemics in its history. Nearly 2 million Americans 12 and older have abused or are dependent on prescription opioids, costing an estimated $55.7 billion annually. At least 44 of these addicts die of an overdose every day.

As shocking as these numbers are, it is even more tragic knowing that an alternative medical option is being overlooked.

Today, a natural product is available that research indicates is effective in treating a number of conditions, including acute and chronic pain. Devoid of the addictive qualities of opioids, this substitute has never been credited with a single documented overdose death due to its own properties. By any other name, the validation process for medical marijuana would have been completed years ago; however, despite compelling evidence and data, we struggle as a nation to examine the merits of these claims.

Addiction to painkillers, particularly opioids, typically starts innocently when physicians prescribe them to patients suffering from acute, but temporary pain, such as post-operative surgery. Most patients do not become addicted. But, with more than 259 million prescriptions written annually, too often the result is a crippling dependence. Opioid addiction is a national problem that affects every socioeconomic and demographic group. Often hidden, it's tearing apart lives in cities, suburbs and rural areas.

Many opioid addicts eventually switch to heroin, either to save money or to satisfy their cravings. About 77 percent of heroin addicts begin as prescription opioid abusers. Corresponding with the growth in opioid prescriptions, the CDC reports that heroin use increased 63 percent between 2002 and 2013 and heroin-related overdose deaths have nearly quadrupled over the same period with more than 8,200 deaths in 2013.

A recent study by researchers at the RAND Corp. and the University of California found that in states where medical marijuana's products have been legal and made available to the public through regulated, medically focused dispensaries, opioid substance abuse declined by 15 percent, with a 31 percent reduction in opioid overdoses.

According to a preliminary analysis by Columbia Care of its national medical marijuana patient registry, 84 percent of its HIV/AIDS patients and 100 percent of its cancer patients noted that medical marijuana is significantly better than other treatments for pain management, including highly addictive opioids. Additionally, 73 percent of its medical marijuana patients discontinued other prescription pain medications subsequent to being given this alternative.

Most striking of all: While prescription opioid overdose leads to more than 22,700 deaths a year, there is not one documented and confirmed case of a person dying from an overdose of medical marijuana products.

We support a cautious approach and are committed to pursuing research with leading institutions. However, this epidemic is tearing our communities and families apart today. Now is the time to use medically focused and state-administered programs. This commitment does not require sweeping changes to the federal government's watchful stance. It merely requires collaboration among policymakers, qualified state-selected licensees and medical providers.

States that have medical marijuana programs are gathering enormous amounts of data -- we urge physicians and public health officials to examine this information carefully. As new evidence supports the use of medical marijuana as an alternative palliative therapy, the opportunity to reduce addiction and save lives makes this worthy of immediate and coordinated examination.