Medical Marijuana Laws Linked to Less Prescription Drug Use, Medicare Spending

Medical Marijuana Laws Linked to Less Prescription Drug Use, Medicare Spending

By Ed Coghlan

While federal health officials continue to resist expanding the study of marijuana for medicinal purposes, data continue to be developed that show maybe there is something to it.

For instance, a study from the University of Georgia showed that if your state has approved the use of medicinal cannabis, there is a quantifiable decline in the use of traditional prescription drugs. The data are published in the July edition of the scientific journal Health Affairs.

Investigators assessed the relationship between medical marijuana legalization laws and physicians’ prescribing patterns in 17 states over a three-year period (2010 to 2013). Specifically, researchers assessed patients’ consumption of and spending on prescription drugs approved under Medicare Part D for nine areas:  anxiety, depression, glaucoma, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders, and spasticity.

Authors reported that prescription drug use fell significantly in seven of the nine domains assessed.

“Generally, we found that when a medical marijuana law went into effect, prescribing for FDA-approved prescription drugs under Medicare Part D fell substantially,” investigators reported. “Ultimately, we estimated that nationally the Medicare program and its enrollers spent around $165.2 million less in 2013 as a result of changed prescribing behaviors induced by … jurisdictions that had legalized medical marijuana.”

Investigators estimated that prescription drug savings would total more than $468 million annually were cannabis therapy to be accessible in all 50 states.

They concluded, “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benefits to the drug, which adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that the Schedule I status of marijuana is outdated.”

Survey data compiled from medical marijuana patients reports that subjects often reduce their use of prescription drug therapies, particularly opioids, when they have legal access to cannabis. A Rand Study issued in 2014 showed that opiate-related abuse and mortality is lower in jurisdictions that permit medical cannabis access as compared to those that outlaw the plant.

The savings, due to lower prescription drug use, were estimated to be $165.2 million in 2013, a year when 17 states and the District of Columbia had implemented medical marijuana laws. The results suggest that if all states had implemented medical marijuana the overall savings to Medicare would have been around $468 million.

Because medical marijuana is such a hot-button issue, explained study co-author W. David Bradford, who is the Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the UGA School of Public and International Affairs, their findings can give policymakers and others another tool to evaluate the pros and cons of medical marijuana legalization.

Public support for marijuana has continued in the U.S. This Gallup Poll from last year showed that more and more Americans are using marijuana. California voters will vote on legalizing it this November (and polls show that it is likely to be approved).

And yet, as researchers at Brookings Institution said last year: “Statutory, regulatory, bureaucratic, and cultural barriers have paralyzed science and threatened the integrity of research freedom in this area.”

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Authored by: Ed Coghlan

There are 18 comments for this article
  1. Cat at 3:38 pm

    U.S. Patent 6630507 is held by the US Government on marijuana showing it’s medicinal properties in degenerative diseases. There are many other therapies for chronic pain that are available to the public, unfortunately over time they can become less effective and for some they have never worked as well as opioids. The laws are so unclear with legal dispensaries being raided by law enforcement that many patients fear trying what may actually be their best option.

    Many people discriminate against the use of marijuana out of fear or ignorance of it’s medicinal uses because it has been labeled illegal. Chronic pain patients need an effective pain reliever. Perhaps marijuana is the answer.

  2. Kathy C at 9:45 am

    Ask any one oft those “Pot Activists” they will tell you that Marijuana cures Cancer, reduces our use of Fossil Fuels, and the Taxes it provides will pay for Schools. Attend one of those “New Age Alternative” Health Fairs, they will tell you how, Chiropractors, Crystal’s, Fungus Extract, will inhibit Cancer cells, and promote a full head of hair. We don’t need Science anymore we have Infomercials, and Advertainment. There are couple of new Channels on Cable set up to sell Wrinkle Cream, Spine Simulators, back braces, and copper underwear. They are making a lot of money, that is what it is all about.

  3. Drew P. at 9:40 am

    Where are the “pain Dr’s” who are willing to defy the Feds and perscribe Medical Marijuana for pain? It works for many people and most people know that. My state has NOT legalized medical marijuana and probably never will. My pain clinic still does urinalysis testing for marijuana despite the recent CDC recommendation NOT to test pain patients for marijuana. It’s crazy and I’m ready to move to a more “informed” state. However, I need advice on pain Dr’s who do not discriminate against medical marijuana patients. Only first-hand recommendations please. Moving is very expensive and I can’t go on “a friend of a friend” stories. Thank you all.

  4. Kurt WG Matthies at 6:55 pm

    Judy is correct. Even in an “early adopter” state like Colorado, it is near impossible for pain patients to understand which “strains” are for sleep, which are for headache pain, and which are opioid sparing. People living in pain need medical options based on epidemiological science, and not the ‘witchery’ ie, the anecdotal experience of a single caretaker, as it is done today.

  5. Leigh at 5:03 pm

    My comment on medical marijuana never made it in my comments because I was so freaked out about having all our other meds cut down. That would be devastating in a state like Florida where it is still Against the law to use for pIn issues. I can’t afford to get it much but I am grateful when someone does give me some to have at the house. They always end up coming back for it when they run out of it because they know I am such a lightweight when I take that. It is the miracle drug that say it is. I just went they 4 years of getting very sick to my stomach due to gallbladder and pancreas issues. I actually gained 70 lbs from not eating. My body thought it was starving and with the thyroid issues it took off. The weight is part of the extreme pain problem. The first ten lbs I gained I asked the man I was working with how people that were obese as I am now thru only my stomach carry the weight. I was so uncomfortable then on my back. The pot helps me eat which is so very important since I wasn’t able to eat. It also gives me some energy before the gallbladder issues to enjoy cleaning the house although the back may have been a problem it was wonderful to feel a sense of accomplishment. The sad part is I doubt that in FL they will even think of legalizing this. It’s a sad thing because there is some very bad heroine going around these parts. Two of my daughters friends and cousin dies last year due to how easy and cheap it is to get the heroine. I thank God that I never tried it because I know for sure I would no longer living in order to write this. They say it’s because of the Rx drugs but I disagree and if this many people died in FL of the numbers I heard they did from heroine and it does have to do with someone trying to get pain relief how much stupider can our government be than to cold turkey them off a drug that managed their pain. My friend died last July 18th or cancer in his body and he told me that when he wasn’t given enough drugs to get him through he also went to heroine for the pain. Why in the world would you pass laws to not give my friend enough pain medicine so he could go on his journey in peace. Why would you not legalize pot if it would relax him enough that he would never go that route. My other friend 3 years ago shot himself in the head because his pain from cancer was so bad but my understanding is every single dr should be sued to ever allow this to happen to good people. Legalize this marijuana and let these 80 year olds I lived with in century village their rights to be comfortable as they start their journey. Why should they be hiding and feeling as if they are doing something illegal when all they want is the peace they so deserve as well as their family members taking care of them. Instead you are watching them die this way and you Drs need to be put in jail for allowing this to happen.

  6. Leigh at 4:24 pm

    I am so very confused; please help me understand so I know what I’m up against in ten days when I go to get my Rx filled. My dr is very generous with me and my pain meds because she knows what we go thru in life just to be able to get up each day. When did this law go into effect that they have to cut your meds down a percentage? I live in FL. I made the mistake of talking to her about lowering my duragesic patch to 50 mg because my daughter in CA’s husband is a policeman and it finally came out that when I tried to live out there and allowed myself to run out of medicine not realizing it could. Take up to 3 months to see a pain specialist. He felt as if I was driving under influence, but their dr put me on methods with roxicodone for the pain. Not much difference to me. My younger daughter here in Florida slipped and asked her how she could ever leave her kids with me? She never said a word to my face and I couldn’t figure out why I was so uncomfortable out there. I find out now 2 years later. I do not act one bit high from my meds at all. They go straight to my pain. When I was younger and did try to take then to get high I hated them, I never understood why someone would want to take something that made them want to throw up. I have no clue what the high is like because I can’t even take a sip of alcohol or I feel,it immediately and get the migraine and want to throw up. I think the bottle says not to drive until you know how it effects you. Like them taking a cold medication. They drive on that. If I would get stopped and they took blood they couldn’t arrest me unless they found I had abused this medication is what I would think. It would be more dangerous for me to not have it because I have no range of motion at all I’m my neck. I still have trouble with that on meds. Does anyone know the true laws on this ? I need a new car and of course because of waiting the years it took for my disability my credit is shot. I don’t think her husband will allow her to buy me a car. I have a very clean driving record and there should be no reason for this. But it’s her husband and I have to respect my daughter and her family. He is a wonderful husband and father. I don’t get out there at all because I will not fly. I would much rather drive. That way I can stop when I need to. I, actually looking for a motor home to turn into my home because one child is on Florida coast and one on CA coast. I also
    had to have two surgeries the beginning of July that I thought I wasn’t going to have but it showed me who was in charge. I no longer am on name brand patches because insurance won’t pay so this 50 mg is not working at all. I have plenty of patches so I have two on and it’s been a month and the pain is still horrific. She gave me my normal break thru medications at the same numbers which I was shocked but I guess this type pain medicine is for my horrific back issues and doesn’t help the stomach issues at all. If I’m laying in bed I don’t need as many of those pain pills because I’m not using the back much. If I didn’t have my back pain meds I wouldn’t be able to walk at all. They have saved me to have somewhat of a life as far as the back goes. As many of you have I also have several autoimmune illnesses that causes pain. I isolate because I never know whether my day two days from now will be a day I can make plans or not. I can’t even make plans for a Drs appt. they are bringing a lot of care in here but not the care I need the most. I lost several friends these past few years to death of the cancer and the couple male friends that did my lifting had to move in order to make a living. I’m just so lost. I feel as if I have no home but I live in a storage unit. I have no one that is dependable to come in and clean or put Xmas boxes that are still out back in my storage room. It’s been really hard this month because I can’t clean the way I need it to be. They send care in but don’t they see instead of a. Shower I may need some food or some boxes put away so they wouldn’t have to worry about me falling because I need a surgery from falling. I guess I am on a pity party but if I can’t get my medications that pity party won’t even due. How can they take our meds away at a time like this? Who will care for us? And why is it they would rather pay for these radical pain shots that don’t work for me or several people I know but yet they won’t get us the proper equipment and the massages and things that have been proven to work. They have wonderful proven ways that the functional dr used on me to compliment the pain medication that I truly believe in time I would not need to be on 4 extremely strong medications. I found a beautiful facility in Tuscan, Arizona that works with pain patients and they keep you on your medications but as you go thru their program and you get the hands on care as they stretch your body themselves at first as they train you to do for yourself as well as work with your specific problems and feed your body the nourishment it needs. So many of us are completely depleted of as an example of magnesium and potassium. I had to given 8 bags intravenously the day I went into the hospital and it hurts to put that in your IV and especially how fast they were putting it in my arm. Something has to be done for this pain community. I’ve read articles that now we are dying in our 60’s because the research is going everywhere else but to our Lupus/RA plus I believe over 800 other autoimmune diseases that pain is one of the prime symptoms of. I’ve been living with this since I was 17 years old. Believe me, I’ve had a few remissions but no man was I lucky enough to marry me that really married me in sickness and in health. We as women are more inclined to stay around. I am so very happy for my cousin and my few girlfriends that their men didn’t abandon them when they had another flare up. Bless you guys and you know who you are because you are all so dear to me and we are all still friends today. Their women are incredible people as well

  7. N. Bradshaw at 3:23 pm

    That is wonderful for those that medical marijuana helps, but honestly it has never even took the edge off and left me with a horrible headache. I have tried all forms of ingestion and it has done me no good at all.

    For me, it does no good and isn’t even a consideration. I have been able to take the same level of pain medication for nearly 10 years and it has worked for me. I DO NOT enjoy any high or any other feelings that has led those to become addicted. What is NOT being said, using a medication for recreation is a CHOICE. Being an addict is an emotional problem, rooted more in psychology that should be addressed.

    When someone makes a CHOICE to ingest a drug or medication that they do not need, they take that chance. I know when I take my pain medication I feel nothing other than a reduction in my pain – no euphoria, no other side effect that I previously knew when I WAS taking drugs for recreation many years ago.

    Unless the proper issue is addressed, instead of sidestepping the truth for fear of offending some prominent person that is now deceased because of THEIR POOR CHOICE. They weren’t taking the medications under the medical guidelines…. or they wouldn’t be found with MULTIPLE prescriptions. It is time we call it what it is. With their money and paying cash they are able to get multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors by lying to them. That is undeniable a recipe for disaster regardless the medication. More people die from alcohol related incidents or car accidents than they ever did from pain medication – so why haven’t they regulated how much alcohol can be purchased or speed a car is able to go. Lets use a bit of common sense here.

    Bad or misguided people are usually reason why the rest of us must pay… isn’t it time for them to pay for their poor choices instead of us. I hope so, this is all getting so far out of control. I have to take regular urine tests to make sure that I am not also using other drugs for recreation… I don’t mind, but really? It is all so misguided and insane.

    When I was in the hospital after spinal surgery, they took me off of my normal pain routine and gave me something much stronger by IV… it made my pain exponentially works and when I asked them to stop those medications and put me back on my normal regimen they refused and I had to contact my doctor who straightened it out. Stronger is not always better, it is how your body works to the combination. The stronger medication made me feel like I had been doused in gas and lit on fire.

    It is time we quit blaming the medications and the doctors and start making those that have addictive personalities take the responsibility instead of us as chronic pain patients. Are we to be denied methods and medications that work because those that abuse might be offended and in their eyes, that is just mean. So is allowing those who are in so much pain to just get used to it, we don’t want to sully the reputation of a Hollywood whose who do we.

    I am sick and tired of politicians deciding how I am to be treated when it is my doctor who has helped me the most and is the qualified to make the decision. Addiction is a serious DISEASE, which means that some people are predisposed to an illness that doesn’t mean all will become addicted – there is still an element of self-control. Treat the illness, that is what will help the addict, not by punishing everyone, which makes no sense at all.

    Everyone comments on what works for them – remember, what works for one does not work for all and there is no one answer to any situation. If a medication works for you, that is wonderful – but don’t assume that it will work for another. We have all been through a great deal to find a bit of normalcy in our lives and relief from our pain, many of us years.

    The thing is, we all must be allowed to follow the path to our pain relief, with our doctor – whatever that is. What is important is that those choices are not taken away from us before we have that chance.

  8. Steve at 2:21 pm

    I found it tough to make an edible for the reasons Judy mentioned and my state has limited strains available. Of note, MJ is a highly anticholinergic drug and may be unusable by older males with BPH.

  9. Angel at 1:20 pm

    4 months ago my pain doctor put me on medical marijuana. I immediately stopped using my fetanyl. I literally just didn’t need the 2, 100mcg fetanyl patches I have been wearing for years. I still need breakthrough pain control but pot completely replaced my fetanyl. My doctor was shocked and went on to offer marijuana access to any of his patients that wanted to try. If your dr says yes & your state has med matijuana or legal marijuana, try it. It took trying 10+ types or strains of pot and various delivery methods to figure out what works best god me. Mine is not the indica types that are typically recommended for pain patients, I use a Sativa strain which works best for me

  10. Kerry at 12:35 pm

    I’m suspicious of any “data”, no matter how its compiled, when it comes to measuring opioid and now even the benzodiazepines and muscle relaxers in any research, study, or survey. I’m sure it’s down, but why it’s down “significantly” and how much it was the case of a patient voluntarily reducing these drugs, is just not a true picture of the claim this article makes. In watching the spin in the last two years or more and how numbers are compiled when it comes to opioids and the associated drugs Drs are just out and out refusing to prescribe makes these surveys inaccurate IMHO. There is no way to compile the true outcome unless the pain patients were adequately treated for their pain in the first place and had unfettered access to both makes this outcome not worth the effort it took to make this assumption sadly. I’m really thrilled pain patients have access to cannibas or anything to reduce their suffering, but there is just no way on earth to quantify the claim medical cannibas is doing it in this medical climate leaves me with too much doubt that it’s a clearly a “significant” amount. And I really agree with Judy that the medical marijuana is a willy nilly system at best. It’s pretty sorry when you see a Dr who gives you a letter to receive marijuana but doesn’t tell you how, who, where, and what to get and then you have to drive 90 miles to meet some stoned out driver who passes you your “medicine” through his low rider window and is nice enough to throw in an extra bud because your a first time customer in a convienantly located Subway parking lot like in the case of my friend. She said this was after trying to establish all morning long just what the CBD AND THC content is at ANY legally sanctioned “pharmacy” was like it was a question nobody was ever even asked before. Every answer was I don’t know but it will give you a good high! It’s like pain patients don’t deserve to be treated in a legitimate professional manner just because you have pain. That’s what’s so completely sad about the way the entire medical system have kicked our a**es to the curb!

  11. Chronic Pain Sufferer at 11:32 am

    I don’t use cannabis, however those who DO truly seem to benefit, AND legalization makes great sense for our Country and it’s states.

    Scientific studies and testing to create products for specific symptoms is important. Perhaps I’d find relief from a safer product and if not, legalizing still makes sense in many ways. Thank you for your article.

    War on drugs didn’t work. Anything languaged/called “war” is seriously questionable from my perspective. I prefer the language, “standing for” or “supporting” change that works and benefits society. Let’s take action to support what’s in the best interest of the country and our world.

  12. Jeanne Formanski at 10:56 am

    I’m very happy about the advancements made by the use of medical cannibus and how it will help many patients not have to depend upon so many drugs if they have several chronic illnesses. However, the only thing that I feel disappointed with is that the patients, even though they may have insurance which paid for their other medications will now be stuck paying for their new type of medication. This will play a major toll on all of our economic responsibilities which will only add additional stress in all of the patients lives.

  13. Kathy C at 10:25 am

    I am not sure how to interpret this. They have simply shifted the cost on to the People who have been impacted by one of Conditions that MM is approved for. Marijuana and Opiates have been used by Humankind for Millennia, yet there is no ‘Research.” The response of the Medical Community to the so called Opiate Epidemic should be obvious. There are Physicians pushing “Alternative Medicine” on the people that can’t afford to pay for it. There are more and more people dealing with Chronic Pain, PTSD, depression and other Conditions the Medical Industry can’t fix. The Research does not exist because the Profit driven Industry, found it inconvenient or not profitable. We have fallen down the “Rabbit Hole.”
    The anecdotal evidence is that Marijuana is likely safer and more effective than the current Pharmaceuticals. We have no way of knowing this, since there has been no Research. There is not much in the way of Science to back up many claims made by the Medical Industry, now they have effectively removed a whole cohort of unprofitable “Consumers” from the Health Care game. The Seniors, Veterans, all of people damaged by our System. They just don’t collect the Data, the Data would be inconvenient and unprofitable. The true costs of War, Poverty, Violence, and our other Social Ills, are just not counted.
    I wondered how people could be so lacking in any empathy, they have simply been misled. It is OK now if Grandma has had 2 Hip Surgeries, and is still in pain, there is Marijuana. She should have taken better care of herself. There is very little follow up “Research” on any of these procedures. Even the “Research” is used to mislead the Public. False Correlations, and Conclusions paid to the Highest Bidder are the norm, the more ridiculous the more likely to go Viral. . Science is still the best way to understand the world, but the Science that gets funded is the “Science” that is more profitable. They have sold us all out. The “Science” was inconvenient.
    This was never about Pain, this was about maximizing Profits, while blaming the Sick. There are quite a few “Epidemics” going on in our Corporate Media. These “Epidemics” have been a good way to mislead the Public. They are a great Marketing tool.

  14. Katie Olmstead at 9:47 am

    I started using medical marijuana some months ago. My experience is that it is not decreasing my need for opiates since I can use opiates during the day and not pot. I want to be clear headed and functional, and at least so far, I haven’t found any pot that will give me that. I only use it for helping with sleep, and it does help some for that.
    So I am spending the same on meds AND the steep prices for medical marijuana. Pot is all out of pocket, including the cursory visit with the “prescribing” doctor. I am spending more overall, not less.
    I do find the staff at my local dispensary to be very knowledgeable and very thoughtful. I don’t know if it will ever get to a place where it is clearly enough marketed so that one could get it from a pharmacist.

  15. Tired of Politics at 9:43 am

    Don’t forget that most of us on pain management contracts with drug testing aren’t allowed to use marijuana – which would cause a failed test. For some it stays in the system for weeks. I did discover that it helped me get through a forced taper plan. I’m sure it will be my go to med when my doctor decides I should stop opiates for nerve pain and, and, well I drawing a blank at what else will be available for me that works for the pain.

  16. Lauren Sorrell at 9:29 am

    First, let me say that I am 65 and NEVER in my life used marijuana. However, I have been following all the good reports on the benefits of it regarding pain relief. As of now, Virginia does not allow for the use of medical marijuana but if that outdated law ever changes, I WOULD BE FIRST IN LINE at my doctors office. Vicodin and such do not really work and I do not want to go back on 24/7 morphine therapy. I would love to be given the opportunity to try marijuana

  17. Jocelyn Merwin at 9:18 am

    I agree with the fact that marijuana definitely helps alleviate a number of medical issues. The only thing I feel as not helping is that if you use medical marijuana you have pay out of your own pocket and there are a lot of people who cannot afford to do that. I am very glad that it is decreasing the use of opiates and the overdoses connected to them. We need new legislation to legalize marijuana and have it drop in price and or be paid for,or discounted as they do for the opiates for people with low incomes.

  18. Judy at 9:14 am

    Medical cannabis should be prescribed by a physician and dispensed by a pharmacist. Right now, it is up to the patient to make the medical decisions, trying to decide if something called, “witch’s brew” or some other such name is the right medicine to reduce chronic pain and other diseases. Sure, the current system reduces medicare costs and the amount of prescribed pain-management medicines, but that is a ridiculous statement given that patients are forced to go off the grid as it were, to buy medicine. The savings to medicare are just more expenses for the patient.