Researchers have found that states with legalized medical cannabis saw declines in Medicare prescriptions for drugs such as opioids and antidepressants [npr.org]:
Research published [healthaffairs.org] [DOI: 10.1377/hlthaff.2015.1661] Wednesday found that states that legalized medical marijuana — which is sometimes recommended for symptoms like chronic pain, anxiety or depression — saw declines in the number of Medicare prescriptions for drugs used to treat those conditions and a dip in spending by Medicare Part D, which covers the cost on prescription medications.
Because the prescriptions for drugs like opioid painkillers and antidepressants — and associated Medicare spending on those drugs — fell in states where marijuana could feasibly be used as a replacement, the researchers said it appears likely legalization led to a drop in prescriptions. That point, they said, is strengthened because prescriptions didn't drop for medicines such as blood-thinners, for which marijuana isn't an alternative.
The study, which appears in Health Affairs, examined data from Medicare Part D from 2010 to 2013. It is the first study to examine whether legalization of marijuana changes doctors' clinical practice and whether it could curb public health costs.
The findings add context to the debate as more lawmakers express interest in medical marijuana. This year, Ohio [cleveland.com] and Pennsylvania [cumberlink.com] passed laws allowing the drug for therapeutic purposes, making it legal in 25 states, plus Washington, D.C. [ncsl.org] The approach could also come to a vote in Florida [sun-sentinel.com] and Missouri [ky3.com] this November. A federal agency is considering reclassifying medical marijuana under national drug policy to make it more readily available.
Medical marijuana saved Medicare about $165 million in 2013, the researchers concluded. They estimated that, if medical marijuana were available nationwide, Medicare Part D spending would have declined in the same year by about $470 million. That's about half a percent of the program's total expenditures.
Less prescription opioids? It seems a few pharmaceutical companies have a reason to fear legal cannabis (as long as they aren't in the business of selling it).