WHAT ROLE COULD CANNABIS PLAY IN HEALTHCARE POLICY?
As we never tire of pointing out, cannabis is fascinating because it’s so many different things to so many different people: A safe, all-natural shortcut to relaxation and recreation, a tool to enhance mindfulness, a potential medical miracle worker…all of the above?
Whether or not cannabis plays a role in your life, one of its impacts is being felt in an area no American can afford to ignore: The white-hot debate surrounding healthcare.
Although the continuing classification of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug is a serious hurdle—not to mention Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unhelpful comments concerning those Americans who use it—cannabis is affecting healthcare systems like Medicare and Medicaid primarily by saving them money. Like, a lot of it.
A (VERY) BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO GOVERNMENT HEALTHCARE
While it’s a safe bet we’ve not seen the last of the attempts to demolish the Affordable Care Act, the large federal healthcare programs, Medicare and Medicaid—social insurance programs administered by the federal government as a safety net for Americans age 65 and older and for low-income Americans, respectively—isn’t going anywhere. At least in the foreseeable future.
According to the National Academy of Social Insurance, one significant ancillary benefit of these programs was that they “…spurred the racial integration of thousands of waiting rooms, hospital floors, and physician practices, by making payments to health care providers conditional on desegregation.”
Both programs have undergone many adjustments over the years, including the addition of Medicare’s “Part D,” a program initiated under then-President George W. Bush to add significant drug coverage benefits. And as drug prices continue to grow by historical leaps and bounds, this sets the stage for cannabis to play a potentially significant role in helping manage some of those skyrocketing costs.
CLINICAL CANNABIS AND THE BOTTOM LINE
Cannabis can reduce patients’ dependence on costlier–and more dangerous–drugs such as opiates. The average cost of prescription drugs has risen in most of the recent years since 2000, some years by double-digit leaps. An article published earlier this year on forbes.comsuggested that, had all states legalized medical marijuana in that year, Medicaid would have saved at least $1 billion, and perhaps as much as $3.89 billion.
State-to-state variables such as the lists of approved conditions make estimating tricky; the study the article references points out that the dollar amount saved could be even greater, like “multiple billions” greater. (It should be pointed out that other estimates put the potential savings at a lower figure, closer to half a billion dollars.)
FINANCIAL INCENTIVES VS. MORAL IMPERATIVES
That said, not everyone agrees that shoring up our fragile national healthcare system is the best way forward (see recent “Let it fail” comments). Some businesses have a vested interest in keeping drug prices high; one policy analysis in the Washington Post points out that the drop in opioid prescriptions in medical-marijuana states has inspired pharmaceutical companies to fight legalization by funding anti-cannabis academics and lobbying federal agencies to halt liberalization efforts.
So as in so many areas, it appears we’re at a crossroads: More and more Americans want access to safe and legal cannabis, but pharmaceutical lobbyists—and a broadly anti-cannabis, pro-business Administration—seem intent on obstructing that access.
If you’re wondering what you can do to address this, may we recommend you contact your representatives about your concerns, keep a watchful eye on the news, and keep supporting safe, legal, and local cannabis.