Could medical marijuana be a money-saver for healthcare?

Should the U.S. healthcare system go to pot in order to save money?

That is the question posed by the Motley Fool, which suggested that medical marijuana could prove a remedy to the ever-rising healthcare costs in the U.S.

One of the biggest cost drivers is opioid painkiller abuse. Sales of drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone have gone up several-fold apiece between 1997 and 2006. However, those drugs can be highly addictive. Their growing use, in turn, has led to their abuse, to the point where some task forces recommend more rigid guidelines for their prescription.

And the average cost of caring for an abuser of painkillers is eight times higher than for someone who does not abuse such drugs, according to data compiled by researchers at the Oregon State University School of Pharmacy. That's primarily because of a higher rate of visits to emergency rooms and physician offices, and substance abuse treatment--along with the morbidities that led to the need for painkillers in the first place.

However, citing data from JAMA Internal Medicine, Motley Fool reported that mortality rates from opioid abuse were nearly 25 percent in the 23 states (and District of Columbia) where medical marijuana is legal. "A nearly 25 percent reduction in opioid-induced mortality would likely translate into big savings for the healthcare system," the article states. And in states where medical marijuana has been legalized, the mortality rates dropped nearly 20 percent in the first year after legalization.

Whether the healthcare system officially harnesses medical marijuana remains to be seen. Although a doctor's prescription is required in most states where it is legal for medical purposes, dispensation tends to be more loosely regulated than other medications. Many physicians say more research needs to be done before they can embrace its use, and they would also like more training in prescribing it. Moreover, federal regulators, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, pressure physicians to keep their distance from the drug.

To learn more:
- read the Motley Fool article