Something interesting appears to be happening in the US. States that have medical marijuana laws have noticed decreases in painkiller prescriptions and opioid-related deaths.
According to a recent report published in Health Affairs, doctors working in states where marijuana is legal prescribed an average of around 1,800 fewer doses of painkillers per year between 2010 and 2013.
States that have medical marijuana readily available to those who need it also witnessed a drop in prescriptions for antidepressants, sleeping pills, seizure medicines, anxiety medication, and anti-nausea drugs.
25 states and the District of Columbia have passed medical marijuana laws, although not all of them have gone so far as to implement those laws.
A Map of States That Have Medical Marijuana
In addition to the District of Columbia, the following states have passed medical marijuana laws, listed in alphabetical order:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- Rhode Island
For more information about the legality of CBD and cannabis oil, check out our article: “Is Cannabis Oil Legal?”
Adding Context to the Debate
Of late, more and more lawmakers have shown an interest in the merits of medical marijuana. From a purely fiscal point of view, the aforementioned study came to the conclusion that medical marijuana saved Medicare over $165 million in 2013 alone. Had it been available across all 50 states, this number would have risen to over $470 million.
Now, this is a relative drop in the ocean when compared to the multibillion-dollar running costs of Medicare. In fact, it’s around half a percent of the program’s total expenditure.
But, when observed alongside the decline in prescriptions for drugs used to treat the symptoms of conditions such as chronic pain, depression, or anxiety, it has certainly given lawmakers and marijuana advocates alike a new angle from which to approach the debate.
Prescription drug prices are only going one way: up. So many Americans – and, in particular, older Americans – are constantly on the lookout for a more cost-effective alternatives.
This has led to those living in states that have medical marijuana legalized opting for cannabis products as a viable replacement. The point is further reinforced by the fact that prescriptions for drugs for which marijuana isn’t an alternative did not drop in these states during the time period under review.
What Does This Mean Going Forward?
November could see Florida and Missouri voting on whether to join those 25 states and DC in legalizing medical marijuana, while the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is actively considering reclassifying it under a national drug policy to see that it is more easily available to those who need it.
Studies such as the one conducted by Health Affairs serve to add weight to the legalization argument, but saving money shouldn’t be the sole reason to push it through on a national scale. If anything, the fact that the prescriptions, and associated costs, are going down suggests that people are using medical marijuana for its intended use.
There is also a separate investigation being undertaken by the study’s authors into the effect of medical marijuana on prescriptions covered by Medicaid (the federal-state health insurance program for people with low incomes).
The results of this research are yet to be published, but it appears to follow the same trend with a drop in prescription drug payments too.
This isn’t observed only in the US; north of the border, in Canada, many veterans are also swapping opioids and tranquilizers for medical marijuana prescriptions.
If this trend continues, it could have a hitherto unparalleled impact on care and spending with regard to chronic pain and mental health conditions.
A Drug Unlike Many Others
A key observation beyond the potential cost savings is the fact that marijuana is unlike many other drugs.
When taking opioids for pain management and relief, there exists a potential for abuse, and an overdose of these types of drugs can be fatal.
Over-consumption of marijuana, on the other hand, cannot lead to fatality. However, there are other side effects that some physicians think must be considered before they will prescribe marijuana as an alternative to painkillers.
Yet a study undertaken at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without.
The Other Side of the Coin
The positive outlook of this study doesn’t mean the world of legalized medical marijuana is all sunshine and rainbows. The federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning doctors cannot technically prescribe it. In states that have medical marijuana laws, doctors can only write their patients notes referring them to a dispensary.
And insurance plans won’t cover it, so patients who wish to try medical marijuana as an alternative to painkillers have to pay for the privilege. Prices tend to vary depending on the state, but typically, a patient can spend as much as $400 per month on a recommended regimen of medical marijuana.
The DEA is making noise about changing the classification from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug, which would put medical marijuana in the same bracket as morphine and oxycodone, making it more likely to be covered by insurance and allowing doctors to prescribe it directly.
But some physicians, such as Dr Deepak D’Souza of Yale School of Medicine, aren’t buying into the argument that prescribing medical marijuana in lieu of opioids and other painkillers will save Medicare money.
Others still contend that introducing medical marijuana on a national scale as part of patient care would positively impact healthcare costs due to the fact that marijuana can be produced much more cheaply than other drugs.
One thing, it seems, must be established before more physicians back the switch from opioids to cannabis: an agreed-upon recommended dosage. With all this in mind, the debate is certain to rage on; however, the strong economic and mortality data will only serve to strengthen the legalization argument.
Where do you stand in this debate? Do you think medical marijuana is a positive alternative to painkiller prescriptions? Let us know in the comments below.