The Pros and Cons of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana continues to be a hotly debated topic throughout the United States as more and more Americans are legally accessing the drug. As new states have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, some have criticized these decisions, implying that the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes is merely a “back door” method of legalizing the drug for recreational use.

However, research has shown that individuals are not just using the drug to get high, but are turning to marijuana to treat everything from chronic pain to sleep disorders. To that end, supporters of marijuana legalization tout the substance’s efficacy for medicinal purposes, but the apparent benefits do not end there. New information gathered from states who currently allow the legal use of marijuana is suggesting that legalization has resulted in large savings in these states’ Medicare prescription drug programs. It is believed that doctors in these states are prescribing medicinal marijuana for patients who suffer from some common conditions such as anxiety or glaucoma when prior to legalization, they would have only been able to recommend costly prescription drugs for men and women suffering from these diseases.

In a recent issue of Health Affairs, University of Georgia researchers published a study that found that in 2013, there were approximately $165.2 million in Medicare savings due to lower rates of prescription drug use. These significant savings occurred in a year when 17 states and the District of Columbia had allowed for the use of marijuana for medical purposes. Researchers are citing these findings as correlational, and posit that if all 50 states had also enacted similar legislation, overall savings to Medicare would have been around $468 million.

Healthcare is becoming more expensive with each passing year, and programs such as Medicare are designed to help some lower income individuals access the care they need. But as program budgets become increasingly strained, it may be prudent to consider the cost-saving effect of medical marijuana legislation. The millions of dollars in savings that could occur are undoubtedly needed to help keep programs like Medicare funded and functioning.

As we grapple with the hot-button topic of marijuana legalization, there are undoubtedly pros and cons to consider on both sides of the argument. As rates of prescription drug abuse are on the rise, policy makers and healthcare professionals are searching for ways to limit access and curb the abuse of these types of drugs. The opioid overdose epidemic is of particular concern, as these types of prescription drugs have been largely responsible for the recent spike in rates of overdose throughout the country.

Currently, according to the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana is a “Schedule 1” by the federal government under the Controlled Substances Act. A Schedule 1 classification denotes a highly restrictive categorization, and is to be reserved for drugs that the government considers to have high potential for abuse, significant safety concerns, and no medicinal value. Many who support the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes take issue with this classification, and as more data supports positive outcomes in the realms of both public health and economics, more states are removing restrictions on the substance.

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal use, and since then several more states have adopted similar legislation. However, it will take some time to collect enough longitudinal data to gain a clearer picture on the effects of marijuana legalization for states with struggling Medicare budgets, and to understand more deeply the relationship between marijuana legislation and rates of prescription drug use.