There’s an interesting dichotomy occurring in the United States. There was a time when many Americans didn’t give much thought to prescription drugs. Doctors prescribed them, patients took them. But while pharmaceuticals have been a primary resource for pain relief and treatment of disease, we’re beginning to see more patients chose medical cannabis over prescription drugs in states where it is legal.
What’s motivating them? If you’ve been watching the trends, you could say there’s a perfect storm brewing based on three factors: growing prescription prices, fears associated with opioid addiction, and the support and acceptance of medical cannabis therapy.
Rising prescription drug prices are an issue for patients in the United States. A recent Money magazine article listed some alarming statistics about how out-of-control prescription drug prices have become including: double-digit drug price increases in the past three years, nearly 17 percent of all U.S. health care spending in 2015 went to prescription drugs as compared to roughly 7 percent in the 1990s, and that prescription drug spending is expected to reach $640 billion by 2020 as compared to the $425 billion spend in 2015.
In addition to high prescription drug prices, more Americans now believe opioids are the most serious drug problem in our country. According to National Institute of Drug Abuse 2012 numbers, over 2 million people in the U.S. suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers and the number of unintentional overdose deaths more than quadrupled since 1999. Most recently, a June Gallup survey shows that more than four in 10 Americans view prescription painkillers as a ‘crisis’ or a ‘very serious problem’ in their local areas.
Are patients pushing back? Recent research appears to say ‘yes.’
Consumer Reports conducted a nationally representative telephone poll that revealed price increases occurred across the board of prescription drugs and that patients faced with higher drug costs stop taking their prescriptions. Another interesting study published in Health Affairs, a leading journal of health policy thought and research, shows that prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D enrollees from 2010 to 2013—specifically prescription drugs for which cannabis could serve as a clinical alternative—fell significantly once a medical marijuana law was implemented. In fact, the Medicare Part D enrollees spent nearly $165.2 million less on prescription drugs.
Pew Research and Gallup have been asking people about their acceptance of marijuana since 1969. In that timeframe you can trace public support for legalization to 2013, when—for the first time ever—more Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana compared to those who were not. And, results from a Pew Research survey conducted in 2015, double-digit numbers of people have changed their minds in favor of cannabis legalization.
Drug companies have the ability to increase prices without regulation and lack of demand doesn’t cross their radar in relation to pricing. Instead, their focus is on the uniqueness of the drug, competing drugs, the number of drugs available in its pipeline, and the potential of the drug to change the current practice of medicine. So, don’t expect prescription drug prices to come down any time soon. And, tackling the opioid addiction problem is complicated. But medical cannabis is a strong contender for helping get people off opioids, which was one of the arguments that helped Ohio’s medical marijuana bill pass.
There are now 25 states in the United States where medical cannabis is legal in some form. That’s half of the country. We’re going to see even more patients choosing medical cannabis over prescription drugs in the future. Given the trends, results from studies like those published in Health Affairs (as mentioned above), provide undeniable proof that patients will choose cannabis for its affordability and medical benefits. And, that is just another major tipping point in favor of cannabis.