Medical marijuana has become a direct threat to pharmaceutical companies — and an unexpected method of combating deaths from prescription narcotic overdoses.
A study in Health Affairs that analyzed the effects states experienced after legalizing medical marijuana “found that the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented.”
When patients could use marijuana, their reliance — and addiction — on pills declined. That could also mean that medical marijuana led to fewer patients developing an addiction, and thus, fewer deaths, though the study didn’t address the issue.
Physician prescriptions for pain medication fell the most, followed by anxiety, nausea, and psychosis. Marijuana is displacing the traditional medication offered by pharmaceutical companies who, as The Washington Post noted, have “been at the forefront of opposition to marijuana reform.” The study seems to justify the industry’s concern that medical marijuana could undermine profits.
That shift means high cost savings in states that embrace medical marijuana. When estimating cost savings, the study “found that about $165 million was saved in the 17 medical marijuana states in 2013. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the estimated annual Medicare prescription savings would be nearly half a billion dollars if all 50 states were to implement similar programs,” according to The Washington Post.
Those health care savings could weigh heavily on legislators in states that have yet to allow medical marijuana. Pennsylvania was the most recent state to legalize medical marijuana, the 24th to do so.
For legalization advocates, it’s another study to bolster their case. Marijuana use isn’t just a legitimate health alternative — it’s cost effective.
The study focused on Medicare, which gives a good sample of older Americans. However, the greatest effects for medical marijuana as a substitute for painkillers could come from Americans ages 25-54. More than 10,000 men and 6,600 women since 2010 have died from prescription pain overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1999, due to an over-reliance on prescribing painkillers, deaths from the drugs have increased 265 percent for men and more than 400 percent for women.
Greater access, and use, of medical marijuana instead of painkillers could save thousands of lives a year while making health care more cost effective. That depends on whether doctors see the formerly prohibition drug as legitimate, and whether patients will embrace it. But first, the legal atmosphere will have to overcome protests from pharmaceutical companies and supporters of the war on drugs to make it an option.