A study published this month in the journal Health Affairs finds that “the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented.”
The authors state that “(n)ational overall reductions in Medicare program and enrollee spending when states implemented medical marijuana laws were estimated to be $165.2 million per year in 2013.”
This is a significant reduction in cost to the Medicare program (and therefore to all taxpayers). And it appears to be a result of states like Maine which have implemented functional medical cannabis programs.
Is this simply an anomaly, a happy accident of data? We know that correlation does not mean causation. But our extensive data and anecdotal evidence from our medical cannabis patients reinforce the study’s findings.
From members with PTSD who find themselves able to reduce pharmaceuticals and therefore to engage more heartfully in various forms of cognitive behavioral therapy, to those who are using cannabis to disentangle themselves from alcohol and opioid addictions, we daily meet medical cannabis patients who are turning away from insured pharmaceutical options, and toward a safer alternative.
But the first member I thought of when reading about this study was “Joan,” who is in her 70s and who has been living with dementia for six years. Joan is in home hospice care, meaning that under Medicare definitions, she has received a diagnosis of an expected six months or less to live. When first we met, late in May this year, Joan had been bedridden for about four days, and had developed a dollar-coin sized pressure wound on her heel which appeared to be potentially gangrenous.
As a person with agitation of presumed Alzheimer’s origin, Joan’s prescription list in May was extensive—though no different than most patients in her situation. It included the usual pharmaceuticals used to calm patients with dementia-related anxiety: Ativan, Seroquel, Lorazepam, and, when these didn’t work, Klonopin and Xanax. Morphine was available too. These powerful drugs were there to calm her agitation. But her caregivers reported that they also ultimately were making her dementia worse.
Since beginning to use a cannabis tincture rich in CBD about six weeks ago, Joan has been able to get out of bed, to move around the house, and even to walk outside (to be sure, with a caregiver helping her with a gait belt); she has been able to get into the car and enjoy a ride. Last week she watched a movie with a caregiver, and clearly and spontaneously commented, “Oh isn’t she pretty” about one of the characters. She even spelled her own name.
When I first visited her, Joan could hold a mug but had little ability to control her motor functions. When we met last week, she was in the process of feeding herself breakfast with a spoon. Her pressure wound had healed to a healthy pink. Her quality of life (and that of her family and caregivers) has improved exponentially.
And yet, perhaps the most impressive part of Joan’s first month using medical cannabis is this: She almost never uses any pharmaceutical drugs any more.
Today, Joan takes one to three small doses of cannabis tincture during the day, plus some melatonin at night to assist with sleep. She is maintaining healthy blood pressure despite no longer using pharmaceutical blood pressure meds. She has been become almost pharmaceutical-free.
So the findings of the Health Affairs study come as no surprise to us: expanded access to medical cannabis does tend to reduce Medicare expenditures on pharmaceuticals.
It must be remembered that medical cannabis patients like Joan and her family are rejecting Medicare-covered drugs for a natural alternative that is currently not covered by health insurance. So the savings to the taxpayer-funded program is coming out of the pockets of seriously ill patients, or from the dispensaries who donate medicine to them.
Still, a study like that reported in Health Affairs, and an experience like Joan’s, offer an intriguing rebuttal to cannabis opponents who believe that legal medical or adult use will result in a massive increase in societal costs. The Health Affairs study is timely and thought-provoking as more states consider legal medical cannabis use, and as states like Maine and Massachusetts contemplate the move from medical to full adult use.