Demand for prescription drugs fell markedly in US states where recreational cannabis is legal, in findings that could have far-reaching financial and health implications, researchers say.

Prescription medicine among anxiety and depression sufferers dropped 12% and 11% respectively in states where personal-use cannabis is permitted, with those suffering from psychosis, sleep conditions, seizures and pain also needing fewer costly drugs to manage their conditions.

The study, conducted by doctoral students at New York’s Cornell Jeb Brooks School of Public Policy and Indiana University, is understood to be among the first to focus on the impact of legal recreational cannabis on prescription medicine.

Most similar studies only analyse the effect of medicinal cannabis, researchers Shyam Raman and Ashley Bradford said.

The findings, based on data analysis from 50 states between 2011 and 2019, suggest that state governments could save money by legalising cannabis, while weening patients off potentially harmful opioids at the same time.

“These results have important implications,” Raman said. “The reduction in drug utilisation… could lead to significant cost savings for state Medicaid programs.

“The results also indicate an opportunity to reduce the harm that can come with the dangerous side effects associated with some prescription drugs.”

While prescription rates dropped for most indications in states where recreational cannabis is legal, there was no measurable difference on demand for traditional medicines used to treat nausea.

The study was published in the Health Economics Journal.

So far, 38 US states have legalised medical cannabis with 18 allowing cannabis to be used recreationally. It is also legal in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, two thirds of senior Americans believe medicinal cannabis should be subsidised by the state Medicare system.

A survey of 1,250 over-65s, commissioned by healthcare web platform Medicareplans.com, found that one in five respondents are using medicinal cannabis to treat one or more health conditions, with 66% believing the cost should be covered by Medicare.

Of the third who disagreed, 38% said they feared the involvement of insurance and pharmaceutical companies would drive up the cost of medicinal cannabis, while 31% believed the long-term impacts of cannabis are still unknown.    

Steve has reported for a number of consumer and B2B titles over a journalism career spanning more than three decades. He is a regulator contributor to health journal, The Medical Republic, writing on...