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One of the arguments for cannabis legalization is that it might reduce the number of people who use prescription drugs, including opioids, to treat various conditions. That’s potentially a significant public health benefit, especially when many prescription drugs have harmful side effects.
A new study shows that this theory may be valid. Researchers found that the presence of a legal cannabis market resulted in a significant decline in the use of a wide range of prescription drugs among those in state Medicaid programs. They included drugs that treat pain, anxiety, depression, psychosis, seizures, and sleep. What makes this study noteworthy is that the data reveals more than just a tendency for people to set aside opioids when they have access to legal marijuana.
The study looks at all 50 states
The research was conducted by Shyam Raman at Cornell University’s Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and Ashley Bradford at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. They published their findings in Health Economics.
Raman and Brooks wanted to focus on a wide variety of prescription drugs, rather than only on opioids. They also included every U.S. state, using data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services from 2011 to 2019. This period covers the first decade in which legal marijuana sales took off in states across the nation, starting in Colorado and Washington.
They found a decrease in the use of drugs treating the conditions listed above, which is six of the nine areas they researched. They found no decrease in the use of prescription drugs for nausea, spasticity, or glaucoma.
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Why these findings are important
Speaking with the Cornell Chronicle, Raman said that the survey results “have important implications. The reductions in drug utilization that we find could lead to significant cost savings for state Medicaid programs. The results also indicate an opportunity to reduce the harm that can come with the dangerous side effects associated with some prescription drugs.”
The pair of researchers also noted that cannabis use comes with its own set of potential side effects, and people should consult with physicians before deciding to use cannabis to treat any condition.
“We must also consider the possibility that an increase in patients using cannabis to treat their medical conditions may have the unintended consequence of creating more distance between individuals and their medical providers,” they wrote in the study.
They called for further study that looked at the long-run impacts of substituting marijuana for prescription drugs, noting that with newer data, “future researchers will be able to fully decompose the costs and benefits associated with the legalization of cannabis at the state level.”