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Medical Marijuana: How this Cheaper, Safer Painkiller is Changing Health Care

Medical marijuana is being prescribed for pain more and more often these days, while traditional painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin are being prescribed less and less. This change not only saves states money on their health care programs, but it's also saving lives as the number of overdoses caused by traditional painkillers has dramatically decreased. In a recent study conducted by Ashley and W. David Bradford from the University of Georgia, analyses of prescribing patterns and spending in state-funded Medicare Part D programs revealed that medical marijuana is having a significant impact on our nation's healthcare.

The study found not only that traditional painkillers were being prescribed far less where medical marijuana is a legal alternative, but also that states with legal medical marijuana were saving millions on their Medicare programs. Overall, reductions in Medicare spending where medical marijuana is legal added up to $165.2 million in 2013, a figure which is expected to continue to increase as more and more states opt to legalize the medical use of cannabis. If all fifty states were to legalize medical marijuana and prescribe it in line with these current patterns, it's estimated that the annual nationwide savings would total over half a billion dollars.

More important than the money savings though is the fact that medical marijuana is saving lives. In the states with legal medical marijuana, the study found that on average, physicians prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of traditional painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), methadone, and Opana (oxymorphone), which are often associated with dangerous side effects, abuse potential, and a greater risk of overdose.

The Center for Disease Control considers painkiller overdoses to be a nationwide health epidemic, with an estimated 15,000 deaths each year attributed to an overdose of a prescription painkiller. From 1999 to 2014, over 165,000 people in the U.S. alone lost their lives to a prescription painkiller overdose. More people die from a prescription painkiller overdose each year than from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined. Methadone, Hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), and Oxycodone (like OxyContin) are the most common opioids involved in overdoses, and these are also some of the most commonly prescribed, especially in states where medical marijuana is not yet an option. Meanwhile, there has never been a single documented case of medical marijuana overdose leading to death or any other serious complications.

As more and more physicians are opening their eyes to medical marijuana as a safer alternative to prescription painkillers, more and more patients are reaping the medical benefits of cannabis, not just for pain relief but for a wide range of conditions including anxiety and depression. A 2016 survey of state databases found that there were 1,246,170 registered medical marijuana patients across the country. It's no wonder the pharmaceutical industry continues to lobby against further medical marijuana legalization—they're losing consumer faith, customers, and revenue daily as new research on the medical benefits of cannabis emerges and more states allow doctors the option to prescribe it. Numerous studies have shown the benefits of marijuana for pain relief, anxiety, depression, glaucoma, epilepsy, HIV, cancer, and other conditions. Marijuana is even reputed to help relieve discomfort and heighten sensitivity during sex. With more and more states legalizing not just medical marijuana but also recreational marijuana, cannabis has lost a lot of its stigma and its benefits are being more readily embraced, a change that's benefiting not only patients but also states looking for more efficient, effective, and safer healthcare options. As medical marijuana continues to open up new avenues of wellness, the healthcare landscape is transforming and the medical community has at last begun to evolve.

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