There’s more evidence to suggest that a significant number of people residing in medical marijuana states are using cannabis in lieu of prescription medication, according to a study in the July issue of the journal Health Affairs.
Researchers from the University of Georgia analyzed prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D (which covers the cost of prescription drugs) from 2010 to 2013. They found that for the majority of ailments for which marijuana could serve as a treatment alternative to pills—anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity—there was a notable decrease in prescriptions for traditional meds in that time period.
For instance, prescriptions in the pain category dropped by 1,826 daily doses, and prescriptions in the depression category dropped by 265 daily doses.
All of this amounted to a total of $165.2 million in Medicare savings in 2013. By that year, 17 states and Washington, D.C. had a medical marijuana system in place. According to the study authors, if all 50 states had approved medical marijuana, the overall savings to Medicare would have been approximately $468 million.
Study co-author W. David Bradford said in a press release that these findings could contribute to the debate over whether to legalize medical cannabis—at the very least providing evidence that it does lead to modest budgetary relief. But of course, that’s not all there is to it.
"We wouldn’t say that saving money is the reason to adopt this. But it should be part of the discussion," said Bradford, who is the Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the UGA School of Public and International Affairs. "We think it’s pretty good indirect evidence that people are using this as medication."
Cannabis is no cure-all. Some people do become dependent. But proponents say that using pot in lieu of opioid drugs like OxyContin is better than getting hooked and increasing the risk of an overdose.
A study published in March, which surveyed chronic pain patients who were qualified medical cannabis patients in Michigan, found that cannabis was associated with a significant decrease in opioid use, increased quality of life, and fewer side effects and medications used.
Another study from 2014, which used a time-series analysis of medical pot laws and death certificate data in all 50 states, found that states that had approved medical cannabis had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws.