Medical Marijuana Lowers Prescription Drug Costs

By Pat Anson, Editor

Prescriptions for pain relievers and other medications have fallen significantly in states where medical marijuana is legal, according to a new study published in the journal Health Affairs.

Researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed data from Medicare’s Part D prescription drug program in 2013 – a year when 17 states and the District of Columbia had legalized medical marijuana -- and estimated there was a cost savings of $165 million in prescription drug claims.

The results suggest that if all 50 states had medical marijuana laws that year, the overall savings to Medicare would have been around $468 million.

“Generally, we found that when a medical marijuana law went into effect, prescribing for FDA approved prescription drugs under Medicare Part D fell substantially,” said lead author Ashley Bradford, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia who will pursue her master's degree in public administration this fall.

"The results suggest people are really using marijuana as medicine and not just using it for recreational purposes.”

Compared to Medicare Part D's 2013 total budget of $103 billion, the $165 million in estimated savings only amounts to half of one percent. But it shows the potential for medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription drugs for a wide range of ailments, including pain. Until now, little was known about the impact medical marijuana was having on healthcare spending.

"We realized this question was an important one that nobody had yet attacked," said co-author W. David Bradford, who is the Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the UGA School of Public and International Affairs.

Researchers studied data on all prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D patients from 2010 to 2013, and then narrowed down the results to focus only on nine conditions for which marijuana might serve as an alternative treatment:  anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and muscle spasticity (stiffness).

The biggest reduction in prescriptions was for analgesics used to treat pain. Doctors in states where medical marijuana was legal wrote an average of 1,826 fewer daily doses for analgesics in 2013.

Currently 24 states and the District of Columbia have laws allowing for medical marijuana. The federal government still considers marijuana illegal, however the Drug Enforcement Administration is reviewing marijuana’s status as Schedule I controlled substance. Reclassifying marijuana could make it legal for medical use in all 50 states.

“Our findings and existing clinical literature imply that patients respond to medical marijuana legislation as if there are clinical benefits to the drug, which adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that the Schedule I status is outdated,” said Bradford. “Lowering the costs of Medicare and other programs is not a sufficient justification for approving marijuana for medical use, a decision that is complex and multidimensional. Nonetheless, these savings should be considered when changes in marijuana policy are discussed.”

Previous studies have found a significant decline in use of opioid pain medication in patients who use marijuana and that marijuana users are not at greater risk of alcohol and drug abuse.