Medical Marijuana Use May Reduce Prescription Drug Abuse

Prescription bottle holding several buds of marijuanaIn states where medical marijuana is legal, use of other prescription drugs is lower, according to a study published in Health Affairs.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show prescription opioid abuse has risen to epidemic levels. The sale of prescription opioids has quadrupled since 1999, and between 1999-2014, more than 165,000 people died of prescription opioid overdoses. In states where medical marijuana is legal, marijuana is one alternative to prescription opioids, and the latest study examining its use suggests that people may prefer marijuana to opioid prescriptions.

Marijuana as an Alternative to Other Prescription Drugs

To weigh the effects of medical marijuana access, a team of researchers looked at a database of all prescription drugs covered under Medicare Part D between 2010-2013. They found that in the 17 states that had legalized medical marijuana by 2013, the number of painkiller and other drug prescriptions had dropped. The average doctor in a medical marijuana state prescribed 1,826 fewer painkillers, 541 fewer anti-nausea drugs, 562 fewer anti-anxiety prescriptions, and 265 fewer antidepressants.

The team tested whether some other difference between physicians in states with medical marijuana laws and those in states without such laws might explain the drop. When they compared prescription rates of medications for which marijuana is not offered as a replacement, they found no difference.

Does Medical Marijuana Reduce Prescription Drug Abuse Rates?

The study helps to explain earlier findings pointing to a link between increased access to medical marijuana and reduced abuse of prescription drugs. A National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released in 2015 found that people who had access to state marijuana dispensaries were less likely to abuse prescription drugs. Access to these dispensaries is also linked to a reduction in prescription painkiller overdoses. Substance abuse treatment admissions also fell by 15-35% in states where residents could access marijuana dispensaries.

Chronic pain is a lasting condition that may co-occur with, result from, or lead to the development of mental health concerns such as stress, depression, and anxiety. Further, according to the authors of the paper, chronic pain is a major predictor of prescription drug abuse. Some people with chronic pain find that marijuana successfully treats the condition, and they may be less likely to use prescription pain medications and become dependent on and/or abuse them. Relief from chronic pain may also reduce one’s risk of developing associated mental health conditions.


  1. Bradford, A. C., & Bradford, W. D. (2016). Medical marijuana laws reduce prescription medication use in Medicare Part D. Health Affairs, 35(7), 1230-1236. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2015.1661
  2. Ingraham, C. (2016, July 13). One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana. Retrieved from
  3. Powell, D., Pacula, R. L., & Jacobson, M. (2015, November). Do medical marijuana laws reduce addictions and deaths related to pain killers? doi:10.3386/w21345
  4. Prescription opioid overdose data. (2016, June 21). Retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Leslie

    July 25th, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    Until this is deemed legal everywhere then this really isn’t of benefit to everyone.

  • adrian

    July 25th, 2016 at 5:07 PM

    This is a way to give patients a choice in their health care. Do they want to be stuck taking some prescription indefinitely for the rest of their lives without really knowing the harm that it could be doing to them?
    Or would they rather have access to something that is found in nature and really is legitimate with helping with a multitude of health issues?
    I know which one I would choose.

  • May

    July 26th, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    I know that this is the popular thing to support right now, but it seems like this is only substituting one bad thing for another?

  • Faye

    July 26th, 2016 at 2:04 PM

    My father in law is battling cancer, and bless his heart, he was given a prescription for medical marijuana but refuses ti use it because it goes against his beliefs. I have tried everything that I know to talk him into at least trying it to increase the appetite and get rid of some of the constant nausea that he feels but he absolutely refuses. So for him this is never going to be an option no matter how many glowing reviews there are.

  • alan

    July 27th, 2016 at 8:38 AM

    Yes it may help some and for others it could be a gateway to things even more dangerous. How do we address that?

  • Deidre

    July 27th, 2016 at 1:54 PM

    It might take a while to figure out though if this is because doctors are writing prescriptions for other things like a medical marijuana prescription over the opiates or other drugs that they may have prescribed at one time? It all seems like it is so new that it might be hard to differentiate between those numbers for a while.

  • Bellamy

    July 31st, 2016 at 12:23 PM

    Notice- not less likely to use, just less likely to abuse

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