According to the Wall Street Journal, drug prices increased by almost 10 percent on an average during the period of May 2015 and May 2016. The increase in prices of prescription drugs is putting pressure on public health spending as well as consumers. Individuals are finding relief in non-traditional treatment methods, according to findings of a recent study published in February 2017 issue of the journal Health Affairs. The research shows that Medicare prescriptions for drugs have declined in states where marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes. Medical marijuana may be prescribed for symptoms of nine conditions, including depression, anxiety, nausea, chronic pain and sleep disorders.
The researchers analyzed data from Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drug costs and drug insurance, during the period 2010 to 2013. It was found that there was a decline in the number of prescriptions for drugs used to treat the same conditions for which marijuana is prescribed. The study inferred that since lower prescriptions for drugs such as opioid painkillers and antidepressants were observed in states where marijuana could be used as an alternative treatment method, legalization was the likely cause. The findings were further substantiated by the fact that lower prescriptions were not observed for drugs such as blood thinners for which marijuana is not a feasible replacement.
The researchers established that substitution of medical marijuana for mainstream drugs led to Medicare cost savings of approximately $165 million in 2013. It was also estimated that if medical marijuana was available across all U.S. states, Medicare Part D spending in 2013 would have reduced by approximately $470 million, corresponding to about 0.5 percent of the program’s overall expenditure.
The lesser of two evils: Medical marijuana or prescription drugs
The study’s authors have extended their research to cover the impact of medical marijuana on drugs prescribed by Medicaid, the joint federal and state healthcare program for low-income people. Although the research has not yet been completed, the authors have found a larger reduction in prescription drug payments under Medicaid.
If the findings of the two studies provide early indications, such a trend may have a significant impact on public health policy. The study found that in states where medical marijuana was legal, prescriptions for painkillers were lower by 1,826 daily doses compared to states where medical marijuana was not legal. These findings are consistent with other research in this area.
According to W. David Bradford, professor of public policy at the University of Georgia and one of the study’s authors, higher medical adoption of marijuana and industry expansion will result in cost savings due to marijuana’s lower cost compared to other drugs. But the risk of overdosing on opioid drugs is high, which can be potentially fatal. Its harmful side effects and safety issues need to be considered. Medical marijuana should not be endorsed simply because it is comparatively less dangerous than other substances. Bradford is also of the opinion that incomplete information is available regarding the effects of marijuana on overall health. As is the case with other substances, the chances of marijuana abuse are real and possible.
Difficult to define ideal dose of marijuana for treatment
In August 2016, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) decided to continue classifying marijuana as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Earlier in 2016 there had been reports of a proposal to reconsider this classification to make it less stringent, which was rejected by the DEA. Doing so would have changed marijuana’s classification to bring it at par with drugs such as morphine and oxycodone, which would make it easier to prescribe by doctors and increase the likelihood of insurance coverage.
The use of medical marijuana still leaves a lot of questions unanswered, especially on its usage. Doctors are unsure of the amount of marijuana which can be considered as the right dose for treatment of various conditions. Incomplete information and insufficient research puts medical professionals in a dilemma as well.
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