According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 52 million people in the US, 20% of them being aged 12 and older, have abused prescription drugs for various non-medical reasons at least once in their lifetime.
While US federal and medical agencies need to conduct more expansive, in-depth studies on medical marijuana, today, it is being recognized as a safer, less addictive and potentially more affordable alternative to prescription opioids.
Nonetheless, there is still plenty of debate when it comes to the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana vs prescription drugs, primarily because the legal status of the former remains contentious. While certain states have adopted a more forward-thinking approach to medical cannabis, others lag behind.
This fact prevents patients experiencing a range of physical and mental health conditions— including seizures, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even cancer— from benefiting from the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana.
In this post, we take a closer look at medical marijuana vs prescription drugs when it comes to their safety and efficacy.
Safety: Which treatment option poses the least danger to human health?
While prescription medication is administered for a variety of health and medical benefits, and its continued use is ensured for generations to come, one of its biggest drawbacks is its addictive nature.
What’s particularly concerning is that the fallouts of opioids, central nervous system depressants, and stimulant addictions of this nature come with dire consequences. This is reflected in increased admissions for rehabilitation, emergency room visits, and even fatal overdoses.
Opioid addiction, in particular, proves to be the most serious, and it’s here that the scope of medical marijuana becomes clear. This is because the latter is becoming recognized (slowly and tentatively) as a potentially safer analgesic compared to opioids.
While there are concerns to this day about marijuana, this worry stems more from its illicit use—not necessarily relating to its application as a therapeutic intervention.
Opioids can also cause a range of complications including lowered metabolism, nausea, constipation and withdrawal symptoms, which are less likely to occur when patients use medical marijuana.
What’s more, according to research from the Harvard Medical School, it could be suggested that the legalization of medical marijuana may have an effect on the number of opioid prescriptions, and as a result, the reduced likelihood of overdoses.
Efficacy: Is medical marijuana more effective than prescription drugs?
According to research conducted over the years, medical marijuana has demonstrated a high degree of efficacy in key areas like:
- Central chronic pain
- Chronic spasticity
- Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
- Chronic pain arising from cancer
- Neuropathic pain
- The pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis
In fact, in a study that evaluated user comparisons between medical marijuana and mainstream medicine, 42% of participants stopped using a pharmaceutical drug in favor of medical-grade cannabis and a further 38% used less of a pharmaceutical drug once exposed to these alternative treatments.
78% of survey respondents reportedly used cannabis to treat a variety of health conditions including depression, back problems and headaches.
What was also clear was that for more than a quarter of respondents, their mainstream healthcare providers were unaware that they used medical marijuana.
With greater coordination between these systems of treatment and greater coherence across national and state-level policies on medical marijuana, therefore, there may be greater scope for its use as a treatment.
Medical marijuana vs prescription drugs: The outcome will have a significant impact on patients
While we wait for more extensive research to be conducted on the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana vs prescription drugs, the results so far appear promising.
As we anticipate positive regulatory action in this field of healthcare, more patients may be able to benefit from the curative effects of medical-grade cannabis without some of the debilitating side effects of mainstream medication and the risk of addiction.
With evidence that Medicare saved a staggering $165 million on prescription drugs as far back as 2013 with patients switching to medical marijuana, there may be potential for greater savings today and in the future.
It’s even estimated that if every state legalized it, the US government would save an excess of $468 million a year on medicine for disabled Americans over the age of 65 alone.
While it’s clear that prescription drugs aren’t going anywhere, using medical marijuana for pain relief comes with significant benefits for patients and federal offers.