There’s a body of research showing that painkiller abuse and overdose are lower in states with medical marijuana laws.
These studies have generally assumed that when medical marijuana is available, pain patients are increasingly choosing pot over powerful and deadly prescription narcotics. But that’s always been just an assumption.
Now a new study, released in the journal Health Affairs, validates these findings by providing clear evidence of a missing link in the causal chain running from medical marijuana to falling overdoses
They found that, in the 17 states with a medical-marijuana law in place by 2013, prescriptions for painkillers and other classes of drugs fell sharply compared with states that did not have a medical-marijuana law.
The drops were quite significant:
In medical-marijuana states, the average doctor prescribed
- 265 fewer doses of antidepressants each year,
- 486 fewer doses of seizure medication,
- 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and
- 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication.
But most strikingly, the typical physician in a medical-marijuana state prescribed
- 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year.
as a sanity check, the Bradfords ran a similar analysis on drug categories that pot typically is not recommended for — blood thinners, anti-viral drugs and antibiotics. And on those drugs, they found no changes in prescribing patterns after the passage of marijuana laws.
The tanking numbers for painkiller prescriptions in medical marijuana states are likely to cause some concern among pharmaceutical companies.
These companies have long been at the forefront of opposition to marijuana reform, funding research by anti-pot academics and funneling dollars to groups, such as the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, that oppose marijuana legalization.
In what may be the most concerning finding for the pharmaceutical industry, the Bradfords took their analysis a step further by estimating the cost savings to Medicare from the decreased prescribing.
They found that about $165 million was saved in the 17 medical marijuana states in 2013. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, the estimated annual Medicare prescription savings would be nearly half a billion dollars if all 50 states were to implement similar programs.