Things aren’t going so hot in the public-health war against the opioid epidemic that is sweeping America right now.
Deaths from opioid overdoses hit an all-time high in 2014, the latest year for which there’s official data, and there isn’t much reason to believe the epidemic will be over any time soon. New legislation provides for a range of policy options for addressing the epidemic, but all will likely be woefully underfunded.
States hit the hardest by the crisis are passing their own legislation to combat it, but the different elements of health-care regulation, criminal law, and public-health law that are involved make the scope of the problem difficult to deal with. All the while, groups like elderly Americans are becoming increasingly vulnerable to opioid addiction.
At the same time, seniors already beset by the fears of the opioid crisis are faced with another major issue: Health care—especially prescription drugs—is getting more and more expensive. The twin issues of prescription drug costs and opioids have been among the country’s most pressing concerns for months, and have defied easy policy solutions.
But these problems might have at least one cheap and unmistakably pungent partial solution: medical marijuana. A growing body of research indicates legalization of medical marijuana is associated with lower health-care costs and fewer prescriptions for seniors, and also associated with reduced deaths from opioids.
A new study by researchers Ashley Bradford and W. David Bradford at the University of Georgia indicates that legalizing medical marijuana prescriptions for seniors reduces “use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve” and also “has a significant effect on prescribing patterns and spending in Medicare Part D,” the Medicare component that pays for prescription drugs for enrollees.
The researchers identified nine conditions for which medical marijuana has evidence of efficacy in treatment—including anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and pain—and compared overall prescriptions for other existing drugs in states where medical marijuana is legal versus states where it is not legal. They also analyzed Medicare Part D spending in states that have legalized medical marijuana.
The spending results showed a modest decrease in Part D spending in 2013 of about $165 million in states that had approved medical marijuana, from a reduction of costlier prescriptions. Bradford and Bradford estimated that the country could save over $400 million annually in Part D costs if every state legalized medical marijuana.
That number seems minuscule compared to the $66 billion spent annually on Medicare Part D drugs alone and the almost $400 billion spent on drugs in the country, and it is. But as drug costs have risen even faster than inflation or other medical costs, policies that can slow that rise have been sought by politicians. Legalizing medical marijuana might be the rare policy that can not only halt the yearly rise in some spending categories, but actually reverse it.
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