"Why Insurance Should Pay for Medical Cannabis"

Some recent highlights and curiosities from the amazing world of cannabis science and therapeutics.
By Adrian Devitt-Lee On April 29, 2019

As CBD and recreational cannabis have gained considerable momentum, important aspects of medical marijuana are falling by the wayside. The magnified focus on economic incentives and tax revenue has overshadowed the significance of cannabis as medicine. Just as with insulin and other life-saving medications, a hyper-vigilance towards profit leads to price gouging and undermines patients’ access to medicine. To ensure patient access, insurance companies need to cover the medical use of cannabis, as Drs. David Casarett and Donald Abrams recently emphasized in the American Journal of Bioethics. They first highlight that two active components of cannabis (THC and CBD) are approved by the FDA in various formulations and are covered in those cases. There are specific medical indications for which cannabis has good quality evidence: nausea, chronic and neuropathic pain, some seizure disorders, and quality of life in cancer patients. While much remains to be learned in order to optimize cannabis therapeutics, its utility in medicine is not in question. Moreover, a 2014 court ruling in New Mexico demanded that an insurer must cover medical cannabis for employees. So there is a precedent for insurance companies to provide coverage in compliance with state laws. As a matter of fact, insurance companies could be playing a leading role in the integration of cannabis into medicine. The glacially slow movement of both medical education and formal laws means that insurers can have an immediate impact in promoting access to medical cannabis. And as the authors of the article point out, insurers actually benefit from the increased use of cannabis, which is associated with lower use of opioids, benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics, and other pharmaceuticals. This benefits insurance companies directly by reducing their need to pay for other medications. The profit incentive in medical insurance is an enormous issue that could, for example, be relieved by a Single Payer program. But regardless of federal law, insurers can have a positive impact on the health care system immediately by simply covering the medicinal use of cannabis.

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Adrian Devitt-Lee, Project CBD's chief science writer, is employed as a research chemist by the University College of London.