As we’ve written elsewhere, cannabis is so many different things to so many different people: An illegal and dangerous “gateway” drug; a medical miracle worker; an all-natural and safe shortcut to rest and relaxation; or all of the above?
Regardless of your stance on cannabis and whether or not it plays a role in your life, one very significant—and, we feel, underreported—impact it’s having is on the white-hot debate on healthcare in the United States.
Because it does such a stellar job of reducing patients’ reliance on opioids and other socially—and financially—costly drugs, cannabis saves health care systems like Medicare money—a lot of it.
Medicare: A Primer
Though the future of national health insurance is very much an open topic, Medicare—the social insurance program administered by the federal government as a safety net for Americans age 65 and older—is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
First instituted in 1966 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Medicare had several immediate impacts. Before its creation, health care was often unavailable or unaffordable for older citizens, so the program brought immediate relief to a large and medically underserved portion of the population.
Significantly, according to Wikipedia, “Medicare spurred the racial integration of thousands of waiting rooms, hospital floors, and physician practices, by making payments to health care providers conditional on desegregation.”
Since then, the program has undergone many tweaks and alterations, including “Part D,” an addendum under then-President George W. Bush that added significant drug coverage benefits to the program. As drug prices continue to grow, this has special bearing on the potential role of cannabis in mitigating some of these costs.
Medical Marijuana and Medicare: The Impact in Dollars and Cents
Since 2000, prescription drug costs have risen most years, sometimes by double-digit leaps. After 2010, the country experienced a few years of more modest price increases—and even a couple of years of decreases—before spiking upwards again in 2014.
While it didn’t focus specifically on Medicare, an article published earlier this year on forbes.com suggested that had all states legalized medical marijuana in that year, Medicaid—the government program similar to Medicare, and the largest source of funding for medical and health-related services for people with low income in the United States—would have saved at least $1 billion, and perhaps as much as $3.89 billion.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg; the study the article references points out that, had other factors, like individual states’ approved conditions, remained consistent, the dollar amount could be even greater, as in “multiple billions” higher. (It should be pointed out that other estimates put the potential savings at a lower figure, “only” half a billion dollars.)
For Enemies of Cannabis Legalization, It’s the Financial Incentive, Not a Moral Imperative
While bolstering our fragile national healthcare system and saving billions may sound like a win-win, not all parties see it the same way. As a policy analysis in the Washington Post points out, the drop in opioid prescriptions in medical-marijuana states has spurred pharmaceutical companies to fight legalization by funding anti-cannabis academics and lobbying federal agencies to halt liberalization efforts.
This opposition by pharmaceutical companies to fight legalization is worrisome, though hardly a surprising development. While the state-by-state legalization of cannabis shows no signs of abating, the current administration’s anti-cannabis (and broadly pro-lobbyist stance) provide fertile ground for pharmaceutical advocates. For our part, we’re remembering to contact our representatives about our concerns, and keeping a watchful eye on the news.