Medical Marijuana May Be Helping America Kick Its Prescription Pill Habit

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The United States is facing a health crisis which entangles the healthcare industry, addiction, and the government in menacing ways. In recent months, much attention has been paid to America’s growing dependence on prescription medication, and the root causes for the pandemic are multifaceted. For some, financial access to powerful painkillers or mood-altering anxiety medications is so easy, it becomes more convenient to take that course of treatment than another. For others, doctors are overzealous in prescribing high-dosage medicine and so they begin a regimen simply because they trust their doctors’ intentions. For others still, the side effects of addiction to narcotics like heroin can be assuaged by taking prescriptions like Norco, so taking an unprescribed pill is simply a form of self-medication. For opiods especially, the problem has become so prevalent that President Obama joined Macklemore in a video statement about the state of America’s addiction. However, some critics argued the ongoing conversation is widely ignoring a simple, effective, and relatively harmless solution: medical marijuana.

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The case for legalizing cannabis for medicinal use is not new; however, the act of actually legalizing it is. And now, there is data which seems to suggest that, when given legally sanctioned access to medical marijuana, Americans are turning away from prescription pills. In a report by NPR’s Shefali Luthra, research published by the Journal of Health Affairs is explained, and the results are telling. In segments of older Americans, reliance on medical marijuana for the treatment of ailments like depression and chronic pain has resulted in a decline in the sales of prescription pills meant to treat the same conditions. “[S]tates that legalized medical marijuana saw declines in the number of Medicare prescriptions for drugs used to treat those conditions and a dip in spending by Medicare Part D, which covers the cost on prescription medication,” Luthra writes.


According to the research, the same states in which access to medical marijuana is not only feasible but sometimes very easy are the same states in which “a drop in prescriptions” is taking place. Researchers argue this correlation is bolstered by the fact that “prescriptions didn’t drop for medicines such as blood-thinners, for which marijuana isn’t an alternative.” For instance, “[i]n states that legalized medical uses of marijuana, painkiller prescriptions dropped — on average, the study found, by about 1,800 daily doses filled each year per doctor.” The numbers are likely much higher, but the researchers are faced with difficulties when attempting to find more data. “Because the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, doctors can’t technically prescribe it,” explains Luthra. At best, the trend in declining prescriptions can be estimated to be related to medical marijuana access, but until the federal government overturns the Schedule 1 classification, researchers can’t really know how much of it is being used medicinally.

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There is reason to believe that a reclassification is possible, however. “A federal agency is considering reclassifying medical marijuana under national drug policy to make it more readily available,” Luthra writes. With every passing measure, there seems to be less room for the argument for prohibition. As Luthra reminds readers, “[t]his year, Ohio and Pennsylvania passed laws allowing the drug for therapeutic purposes, making it legal in 25 states, plus Washington, D.C.

Surprisingly, this is “the first study to examine whether legalization of marijuana changes doctors’ clinical practice and whether it could curb public health costs,” but it is likely not the last. As nationwide legalization movements continue to gather steam, this study is a starting point for future research into a potential revolution in how we treat some of our most enduring emotional, mental, and physical ailments.