In 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.
- 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
- Ingraham, C. (2016, July 13). One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/13/one-striking-chart-shows-why-pharma-companies-are-fighting-legal-marijuana
- 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
- Prescription opioid overdose data. (2016, June 21). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/overdose.html
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