Medical marijuana use linked to lower Medicare spending

Although controversies continue to surround the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, it appears that the drug may actually cut down on Medicare's outlay for prescription pain killers.

Medicare Part D spending fell by $104.5 million in 2010, much of the decrease connected to the 17 states (and the District of Columbia) where medical marijuana was legal at that time, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs. Part D cost savings rose to $165.2 million in 2013.

Much of the spending decline was linked to drugs usually used to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity. Medical marijuana is often prescribed for such conditions as well. Researchers concluded there was no drop in spending for other drugs.

The study's authors concluded that if medical marijuana was legal in all 50 states, Part D spending would have dropped by $468.1 million. That's a sizable sum of money on its own but represents just 0.5 percent of all Medicare spending.

“We wouldn’t say that saving money is the reason to adopt this. But it should be part of the discussion,” W. David Bradford, a professor public policy at the University of Georgia and one of the study's authors, told Kaiser Health News. “We think it’s pretty good indirect evidence that people are using this as medication.”

Data from other studies have suggested that overdoses from opioid medications are lower in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Nevertheless, the issue of medical marijuana is a conundrum for many hospitals. They receive a large proportion of their revenue from federal programs, and marijuana is illegal under federal law. That has led to some patients using marijuana legally prescribed in their states to treat medical conditions actually being warned by hospitals for violating its policies, or even demanding they remove the marijuana or marijuana-based products from the property.

– read the Health Affairs study abstract
– check out the Kaiser Health News article