In the fight to stem the rising abuse of narcotic painkillers and other related drugs in the U.S., recent studies are increasingly pointing to a potentially powerful ally: medical marijuana.
A new peer-reviewed study just published in the journal Health Affairs, has found clear evidence of a causal link between increasing use of medical marijuana and falling rates of prescriptions and overdose from opium-based based painkillers and other related medications. The study’s findings were recently reported in the Washington Post.
Using records from the Medicare Part D program, a father-daughter pair of researchers from the University of Georgia found that in the 17 states that allowed doctors to prescribe medical marijuana as of 2013, prescribing rates for narcotic painkillers were lower, and significantly so.
Based on the records the researchers examined, the average doctor in a medical marijuana state prescribed 265 fewer doses of anti-depressants, 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses, and 486 fewer doses of anti-seizure medication. Most significant, however, was that the average doc prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in medical marijuana states than those in states that don’t allow its use.
The researchers also compared prescription rates for other drugs, for which medical marijuana would not normally be prescribed as an alternative. That was an important check, since it would rule out the possibility that doctors in medical marijuana states, for unknown reasons, might simply prescribe fewer drugs generally. But the study found no difference in prescribing rates for these other drugs. That means lower prescription rates for painkillers and other drugs for which pot is a good alternative is almost certainly related to the use of medical marijuana.
These findings, of course, have multiple implications. Among them is that the wider use of medical marijuana could significantly reduce the overall use and abuse of opioid drugs, which have led to an epidemic of overdose injuries and deaths in recent years. Marijuana overdose, by contrast, is virtually unknown.
The results also indicate that wider use of medical marijuana will reduce expenditures through Medicare Part D. The researchers in this latest study determined that the lower prescription rates alone resulted in savings to Medicare of $165 million in the 17 states that allowed the use of medical marijuana. They determined that Medicare would save about half a billion dollars annually if medical marijuana were allowed in all 50 states.
As Medicare goes, it’s not a huge savings, but the study only looked at Medicare drug spending. It didn’t consider the cost savings from a reduction in health care expenditures resulting from fewer overdoses from prescription narcotics. Since 2000, the rate of death from opioid drug overdoses has increased 200 percent. In 2014 alone, over 47,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the vast majority came from the use of prescription drugs. This alarming increase in drug overdoses is significantly affecting every segment of society, and is particularly noticeable in rural communities.
Finding national statistics on the health care costs of this epidemic is difficult, but the state of Ohio has estimated that drug overdose deaths cost that state $2 billion in 2012. If so, the costs would clearly amount to tens of billions of dollars nationwide. If greater use of medical marijuana can significantly reduce those deaths, the savings would also be significant.
What’s more, by looking only at Medicare Part D, the researchers focused on just a modest slice of health care consumers. Those using Medicare Part D are almost exclusively the elderly, a group that has shown the greatest reluctance to using medical marijuana. That’s why the researchers say they plan to extend their analysis to the Medicaid population, which covers tens of millions of younger, low income Americans. If the additional study, as is likely, reaches similar conclusions, the pressure for expanded use of marijuana as a preferred medication for a wide range of ailments will only increase, and rightfully so.
And that’s a concern to the pharmaceutical industry, which has largely led the fight to prevent the wider use of marijuana. Imagine the horror to an industry that reaps tens of billions of dollars annually peddling expensive and highly-addictive narcotics if Americans were allowed to use a natural product that was more effective, far less addictive, came with fewer side effects, and that wasn’t sold by Big Pharma.
It’s no wonder that the drug industry is pouring millions of dollars into campaigns to keep this effective medication out of the hands of Americans. They say they’re concerned that the cultivation of legal marijuana could lead to greater abuse, a concern that seems to escape them when it comes to the far harsher and addictive products peddled by the pharmaceutical industry.
I think what truly frightens the drug industry is the prospect that Americans might start growing their own marijuana, and self-medicating, thereby escaping the pharmaceutical treadmill that keeps tens of millions of Americans hooked on their own expensive drugs.
As usual, it’s about money and profit. Public health and safety is a mere afterthought. Hopefully, policymakers will be able to look past the hefty campaign contributions doled out by the drug industry and start looking seriously at the very real benefits of greater medical use of one of the safest and most effective drugs we know of for a wide range of ailments.