Medical Marijuana Reduces the Use of Prescription Narcotics

Christopher Ingraham reports on the findings of some important research.

Ashley and W. David Bradford, a daughter-father pair of researchers at the University of Georgia, scoured the database of all prescription drugs paid for under Medicare Part D from 2010 to 2013.

They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law. The drops were quite significant: In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year, 486 fewer doses of seizure medication, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.

But most strikingly, the typical physician in a medical-marijuana state prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year.

Keep in mind that these results are limited to prescriptions for patients covered by Medicare, especially when you consider this:

In what may be the most concerning finding for the pharmaceutical industry, the Bradfords took their analysis a step further by estimating the cost savings to Medicare from the decreased prescribing. They found that about $165 million was saved in the 17 medical marijuana states in 2013. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the estimated annual Medicare prescription savings would be nearly half a billion dollars if all 50 states were to implement similar programs.

Obviously these results would be significantly multiplied if researchers were able to review the records of all adults in these medical-marijuana states.

Alongside that information is this ugly reality.

Prescription drug abuse, namely the rise in opioid-related overdose deaths, is considered the fastest growing drug problem in the United States, according to the Journal of Medical Regulation. Opioids were involved in about two-thirds of all the 47,055 drug-overdose deaths in 2014, and 18,893 of those were associated with prescription opioids, according to the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More recently, there has also been a surge in drug overdose deaths involving heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and tramadol. A January 2016 CDC report linked the rise in illicit opioid overdose deaths to the 15-year trajectory of overall rising overdose deaths involving prescription opioid pain relievers.

“The more that opioids are used to treat pain, the more is there an increase in pain,” Connie Greene, vice president of the New Jersey-based Barnabas Health Center for Prevention, told CBS News. “The pills and medication is very expensive, and heroin is very cheap, so we’re looking at a population that’s addicted because of pain medication and a population that’s addicted because of street drugs.”

Heroin overdoses have more than tripled in the past four years, while overdoses linked to prescription painkillers doubled in that same period.

Given all that, it is absolutely unconscionable that marijuana is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA.

Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.

Here is how that affects the ability of scientists to research the medical effects of marijuana.

The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 placed marijuana in the most restrictive use category, Schedule I, deeming it a drug with no medicinal value and high potential for abuse. To do clinical research with marijuana, you need a DEA license, and you need to get your study approved by the FDA. When it comes to actually obtaining research-grade marijuana, though, you have to go through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a process that has proved problematic for some researchers determined to study the potential medical benefits of pot.

Regardless of how anyone feels about the recreational use of marijuana, this is something that needs to change. It is obvious that doctors and patients are finding that marijuana is a potentially effective substitute for prescription narcotics in at least some situations. But they are basically having to figure that out that via experimentation. We need research and data to help us identify the possibilities more thoroughly. And then we need to make medical marijuana available in all 50 states.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly and frequently blogs at Political Animal.