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Declines in opioid prescriptions seen in states allowing medical pot

Posted On: Mar. 23, 2018 2:07 PM CST

Declines in opioid prescriptions seen in states allowing medical pot

BOSTON — While many questions about medical marijuana and workers compensation remain, economists are working to answer one: Will medical marijuana eventually lower the prescription drug spend for pain medications such as opioids?

Recent studies using Medicare Part D and Medicaid prescription data in states that passed medical marijuana laws point to yes, according to ongoing research conducted by David Bradford, George D. Busbee Chair in Public Policy in the Department of Public Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia.

Among the figures, states that allow various forms of medical marijuana saw a 10% reduction in opioid prescriptions, according to Medicare’s prescription database between 2010 and 2015. States that permit medical marijuana distribution via dispensaries — versus states that only permit the private cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes — saw a 14% decline in pain medications prescribed under Medicare Part D. Medicaid data showed an 11% reduction in pain prescriptions between 2010 and 2015 in states that permit medical marijuana.

Mr. Bradford presented his initial findings during a Friday morning session at the Workers Compensation Research Institute’s 24th annual Issues and Research Conference in Boston, finding that all the savings are occurring in urban areas.

“Cannabis policy has been the subject of pretty intense public debate and policy discussion,” he said, adding that research shows 91% of Americans polled agree that marijuana should be on the table for medical therapies. “The question is, when you give people access to this product, do they seem to change their medical behavior?”

Medical marijuana, in various forms and under various restrictions, is now legal in 29 states and Washington, D.C., he said. Pain, it appears, is one of the most prevalent reasons people turn to medical marijuana, he added.

Mr. Bradford’s figures, tallied for 2010 to 2015, show that states with medical marijuana laws have saved the federal government as much as $500 million. It’s the fewer prescriptions that saves the government money, he said, adding that the cost for medical marijuana is shouldered by the patient, as marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, per the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The federal stance that marijuana is illegal complicates an insurer’s ability to pay for the drug, experts have said. In workers compensation, payers have been ordered, via courts or state regulations, to pay for the medication. The practice is not widespread, however.

At least one attendee noted that Mr. Bradford’s figures do not account for strides the government has made in reducing opioid use, such as limiting refills and other measures.

As for cost, medical marijuana is less expensive, he said, with a daily dose of hydrocodone averaging $10 and that of marijuana for pain $6.

Although the studies, published in several academic journals with additional data to be published in the spring, look at the impact of medical marijuana on other social insurance programs, not workers comp, the results suggest the alternative medication could save money in comp, he said.

Next year he hopes to have data that would pertain to the workers comp industry and is now studying changes in opioid deaths in states with medical marijuana laws.