Editor's Corner: Should hospitals consider going to pot?

A marijuana leaf

There have been many healthcare delivery systems that run parallel to traditional healthcare in the U.S. They're the businesses and practices selling homeopathic remedies, acupuncture, or natural childbirth.

But one business has grown more rapidly and haphazardly than all the others: Medical marijuana.

Since California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, its use for medical purposes has become legal in half the states and the District of Columbia, according to ProCon.org. In 2014, the federal government quietly decided to stop pursuing criminal cases against marijuana dispensaries in states where medical marijuana is legal. And earlier this year, Congress passed an amendment that would no longer restrict providers with the Veterans Administration from counseling patients on medical marijuana.

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“The death rate from opioids among VA healthcare is nearly double the national average,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the Oregon Democrat who introduced the House amendment, said prior to the vote. “From what I hear from veterans is that medical marijuana has helped them deal with pain and PTSD, particularly as an alternative to opioids.”

Blumenauer has a point. A study published in Health Affairs just a few weeks ago linked states with legalized medical marijuana to lower levels of Medicare Part D spending: $104.5 million less in 2010 (when it was legal in just 17 states and DC), and $165.2 million less in 2013.

The study concluded that if medical marijuana was legal in all states, it would save Medicare nearly a half billion dollars a year.

But I would venture to guess that the cost savings would go well beyond that.

As I recently wrote about the opioid epidemic a few weeks ago, about 4,000 additional people in the U.S. wind up abusing prescription painkillers every day. It costs hospitals to treat patients who have overdosed on prescription pills–or on heroin if they could no longer procure a supply– a lot of money. And since those patients often lack insurance, the providers often have to write off such costs. Those expenditures don't even factor in the recent huge price spikes for drugs such as naloxone used to treat overdose patients.

By comparison, marijuana is relatively cheap and not at all deadly. Moreover, virtually all prescriptions are paid for by patients out of pocket.

But most of the country still views marijuana with a gimlet eye. “You smoke too much of that [expletive] that [expletive] is gonna rob you of your ambition,” workaholic criminal Samuel L. Jackson informed a buzzed Bridget Fonda in the Quentin Tarantino movie “Jackie Brown,” the most concise and amusing summary of the American attitude toward pot.

That's among the reasons why there has been just a microscopic amount of research about medical marijuana and its relationship to reducing healthcare costs. It is also why on many occasions, hospitals still bar medical marijuana from their premises, even when it is legal within the state, and even if it is a source of therapeutic comfort to patients.

That may be slowly changing; NORML.org has reported that Maine and Connecticut recently passed legislation allowing patients to be treated with medical marijuana on hospital premises, even if they procure their supply from a third party.

Given the pernicious toll opioid painkillers have taken on hospitals and our nation as a whole, these are small steps in the right direction. No matter your opinion of medical marijuana tokers, their chances of becoming addicted to the drug are next to nothing. Even if they continue smoking marijuana, they're not likely going commit property crimes to support their habit. Those two facts would likely save the healthcare and legal systems billions of dollars a year if simply taken at their face value.

Moreover, most people who overdose on opioids can perform few tasks beyond waking up. The only group with fewer ambitions are corpses. – Ron (@FierceHealth)

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