Comic Sums Up Why Prescription Drug Use Is Declining in Some States

July 7th 2016

A comical meme is shedding light on one of the less-studied effects of medical marijuana legalization.

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It turns out sufferers of certain medical conditions — from insomnia and chronic pain to depression — are either using fewer prescription drugs or outright replacing them with medical marijuana, according to a new study published in Health Affairs.

"The results suggest people are really using marijuana as medicine and not just using it for recreational purposes,” said lead author of the study Ashley Bradford.

Medical marijuana has the potential to decrease prescription drug costs for patients residing in states where it's legal, and Medicare also benefits. In 2013, a year when 17 states and the District of Columbia had medical marijuana programs in place, Medicare saved an estimated $162.5 million, a number that would have likely been closer to $468 million if medical marijuana had been legal in all states, PsyPost reported.

These savings don't amount to more than a drop in the bucket for Medicare, which is a multibillion-dollar program, according to NPR. But the study results are potent evidence for those supporting the legalization of medical marijuana.

Researchers previously studied how medical marijuana took the place of more dangerous drugs, specifically narcotic painkillers. Patients using marijuana — which remains federally illegal as a Schedule 1 controlled substance — reported a 64 percent decline in their use of prescription opioids, suffered fewer side effects from their medications, and saw an improvement in their quality of life, according to a study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Medical School.

Most doctors don't prescribe medical marijuana because of its federal status; they only recommend it. But federal drug officials said that they are considering making marijuana a Schedule 2 drug as soon as this summer. That would place it in a category comprising prescription narcotics, among other controlled substances.

Insurance currently doesn't cover medical marijuana, which sometimes poses a problem, since the drug can run up to $400 a month for some patients. If it is reclassified, doctors will be more likely to prescribe it, and insurance companies will be more likely to cover it, NPR reported.

Marijuana doesn't come with the same risks as, say, opioids — it's virtually impossible to overdose from marijuana. But the medical profession remains unsure about protocols to use it to treat health problems.

"As physicians, we are used to prescribing a dose," Deepak D'Souza, a psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine, told NPR. "We don't have good information about what is a good dose for the treatment for, say, pain. Do you say, 'Take two hits and call me in the morning?' I have no idea."

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