Sacred Garden Blog

Study: Nationwide medical marijuana laws would save lives – and a billion taxpayer dollars

April 24, 2017 | Share Your Thoughts

By Christopher Ingraham April 20

A fascinating study in Health Affairs last year by a father-daughter pair of
public policy researchers found that Medicare prescriptions for things like
painkillers, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications dropped sharply in
states that introduced a medical marijuana program.
The implication? Offered the choice between taking medication prescribed
by a doctor and self-medicating with pot, many older patients opted for the
latter.

But the study left one big question unanswered: Since the study’s authors —
the University of Georgia’s Ashley Bradford and W. David Bradford — only
looked at Medicare data, they couldn’t say for sure whether the findings held
for younger patients too.

Now, we’re getting more answers. This week, the Bradfords are back with aa
new study applying the same analysis to prescriptions under Medicaid,,
which covers low-income people of all ages. The results largely validate their
previous work: Medicaid prescriptions for certain drugs fell significantly in
states that adopted a medical marijuana law.

Specifically, anti-nausea drug prescriptions fell by 17 percent.
Antidepressant prescriptions fell 13 percent, while prescriptions for seizure
and psychosis drugs fell 12 percent.

Not everyone who has access to medical marijuana opts for it, obviously. But
enough do to make a significant dent in the prescription numbers. “Patients
and physicians in the community are reacting to the availability of medical
marijuana as if it were medicine,” the Bradfords conclude.

Perhaps most significantly from a public health standpoint, prescriptions for
painkillers fell by 11 percent. Opiate painkillers are behind much of the
current drug overdose epidemic..

Numerous studies have found that opiate abuse and overdose rates fell in
states with medical marijuana laws. The Bradfords’ research describes the
mechanism by which that could happen: the introduction of medical
marijuana laws coincides with a drop in painkiller prescriptions.

The Bradfords’ data only include prescriptions made under Medicare and
Medicaid, but given the totality of their evidence it seems reasonable to
assume that similar patterns hold true for patients on private insurance
plans.

In the current budgetary environment, no analysis of health care is complete
without a discussion of costs. The Bradfords estimate that because of the
drops in prescribing rates, a nationwide medical marijuana program would
save taxpayers about $1.1 billion on Medicaid prescriptions annually. That’s
on top of the half a billion in Medicare savings the Bradfords estimated last
year.

Those costs don’t evaporate into thin air, of course: they would simply be
shifted over to seniors and low-income people who would be purchasing
medical marijuana outside of their insurance programs.

There’s also the open question of how smart it is from a personal
health perspective to be self-medicating with pot: “it is plausible that
forgoing medications with known safety, efficacy, and dosing profiles in
favor of marijuana could be harmful under some circumstances,” the
Bradfords warn.

Still, the Bradfords’ research makes the gulf between our current medical
understanding of marijuana and federal policy around it even wider. Last
summer the DEA affirmed yet again marijuana’s status in Schedule 1 of the
Controlled Substances Act, a category reserved for the most dangerous,
addictive drugs that have no medical applications.

“This decision was made despite the substantial and growing evidence that
the requirements for Schedule I status involving ‘no currently accepted
medical uses’ are no longer met by marijuana,” the Bradfords write.

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