Recent studies suggest that medical marijuana could help combat two major public health problems: the rising costs of prescription drugs and the spread of opioid addiction.
According to a study at the University of Georgia published by Health Affairs, legalizing the prescription of medical marijuana for certain conditions in seniors noticeably decreases Medicare spending on prescription drugs that would treat the same conditions.
According to NPR, spending on prescription medication only dropped for drugs that could be used to treat the conditions for which medical marijuana is prescribed, suggesting that marijuana was being used as a substitute for costly drugs. Since patients currently spend up to $400 per month on medical marijuana, legalization and insurance coverage could significantly reduce costs for consumers.
Critics of this conclusion say that substituting marijuana only shifts costs. Marijuana, classified as a Schedule I drug, is not covered by government benefits or medical insurance.
“Even if Medicare may be saving money, medical marijuana doesn’t come for free,” Deepak D’Souza, a marijuana researcher and professor of psychiatry at Yale told NRP. “I have some trouble with the idea that this is a source of savings.”
Meanwhile, deaths from opioid overdoses hit record highs in 2014, and efforts to combat the growing opioid addiction problem have found little success, according to the Atlantic. Another study suggests that legalizing medical marijuana use can help address this problem. The legalization of marijuana in some states may have led to around 1,700 fewer painkiller deaths in 2010 alone, writes Olga Khazan for the Atlantic.
A 2014 study published by JAMA Internal Medicine found that a state’s opioid overdose deaths decreased by about 25% when medical marijuana was legalized. Colleen Barry, one of the study’s authors, told The New York Times that using marijuana as an alternative to painkillers could stem the tide of opioid addiction and abuse, although the relationship needs further study.