Prescriptions Plummet in Medical Marijuana States

By Pat Anson, Editor

Medical marijuana is giving some serious competition to the prescription drug industry. A new analysis of Medicaid claims found that prescriptions to treat pain, nausea, seizures, psychosis and depression plummeted in the 23 states and District of Columbia where medical marijuana was legal in 2014.

If all 50 states had medical marijuana laws that year, researchers say the potential savings to Medicaid and taxpayers would have been over a billion dollars.

“We found statistically and economically meaningful reductions in prescription drug use associated with the laws. This finding suggested that patients in states with such laws were substituting medical marijuana for prescription drugs,” W. David Bradford and Ashley Bradford, a father-daughter team of researchers at the University of Georgia, reported in the journal Health Affairs.

Previous studies have shown that prescriptions for opioid pain medication have fallen in states where medical marijuana is legal.

The new study was more comprehensive and included nine clinical areas that cannabis could be used to treat: anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders, and spasticity (muscle spasms).

Five of the nine clinical areas had significant drops in prescribing where medical marijuana was legal:

  • 17% decline in anti-nausea medication
  • 13% decline in antidepressants
  • 12% decline in psychosis medication
  • 12% decline in anti-seizure drugs
  • 11% decline in pain medication

The study found no significant association between medical marijuana laws and drugs used to treat anxiety, glaucoma, sleep disorders or spasticity.

“There is no question that we see patients constantly turning to cannabis, to get off their other medications, mainly to eliminate the side effects they are experiencing.  At this time, this is a huge advantage to us all -- we get a healthier solution to help us with our medical issues and Medicare and Medicaid are seeing a reduction of costs,” said Ellen Lenox Smith, a PNN columnist, medical marijuana user and caretaker in Rhode Island.

“However, until we are able to receive insurance reimbursement like Germany started providing in March, we have to still pay out of pocket. So until we are treated fairly like this in the U.S., we will continue to be paying more for this safer help than if we went to the pharmacy to purchase medication with our co-pays. For me, however, the cost is worth the quality of life I have been able to achieve using cannabis.”

In the current study, researchers cautioned that using fewer prescription drugs is not necessarily a good thing for every marijuana user.

“Our findings do raise important questions about individual behavior. For example, it is plausible that forgoing medications with known safety, efficacy, and dosing profiles in favor of marijuana could be harmful under some circumstances,” said the Bradfords. “In addition, patients who switch from a prescription drug that requires regular physician monitoring to marijuana may interact with their doctor less often, and their adherence to other important treatment regimens could suffer.”

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

Currently medical marijuana is legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia.