What Will It Take To Make Medical Marijuana A Clinical Option?

By Dorri Olds 07/29/16

Medical marijuana is gaining traction as a viable treatment option for some, but how long before it can legally help everyone? 

What Will It Take To Make Medical Marijuana A Clinical Option?

In mid-July, W. David and Ashley Bradford, a father-daughter research team, published a captivating marijuana study in Health Affairs that found Medicare saved $165.2 million per year in states with legalized medical marijuana. The obvious reason behind the drop in prescription drugs that treat anxiety, depression, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity, is that people who have access to medical marijuana are using it as an alternative treatment. 

Their study concluded: “The results suggest that if all states had implemented medical marijuana the overall savings to Medicare would have been around $468 million.”

W. David Bradford, the Busbee Chair in Public Policy at the University of Georgia, spoke to TIME about the study. “What we hope people take away from this is that when marijuana becomes available as a clinical option, physicians and patients together are reacting as if marijuana is medicine,” he told the magazine.

Health officials remain split about the use of unregulated medical marijuana as an alternative treatment to opioids. But Dr. Donald Abrams, chief of the Hematology-Oncology Division at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, is a proponent for using marijuana as an opiate replacement. 

“If we could use cannabis, which is less addictive and harmful than opioids, to increase the effectiveness of pain treatment, I think it can make a difference during this epidemic of opioid abuse,” Abrams told TIME. “We are hampered by the fact that it is still difficult to get funding for studies on cannabis as a therapeutic.” 

Because marijuana is still a Schedule I substance, scientists have a difficult time getting the funding and approval to conduct adequate research. The DEA has said it will decide whether to de-schedule cannabis some time this summer—this is the fourth time the DEA has looked at petitions pushing for the reclassification of marijuana—but direct action has yet to be taken to move forward in the process.

In the meantime, Medicare may be saving tons of money as patients turn from opiates to marijuana, but what about the patients? Since medical marijuana is still considered a Schedule I drug, insurance companies will not cover the cost. If medicinal pot is moved to Schedule II, what would it take for Medicaid to alter its policies to cover the costs? With national legalization yet only a remote possibility, those who choose to use pot instead of painkillers are left to deal with the mounting costs of treatment.

On average, one gram of buds can cost between $5 to $20 but an ounce can cost up to $400. You can also buy it in hash concentrates with higher levels of THC, which cost between $20 to $60 per gram. Additional costs include doctor visits, and let’s not forget the paraphernalia. Vaporizers can cost from $100 to $700. Costs to consumers will also vary widely depending on the amount of usage. If it’s needed on a daily basis, the price can zoom up to $1,000 per month. Also, depending on where you live and how far a dispensary is, you may pay a lot for travel, too.

While the study has provided more evidence that marijuana is an effective treatment, many other issues have to be addressed and resolved by the U.S. government and health industry before medical marijuana becomes a legal viable treatment option for everyone.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.