New Research Shows Cannabis Liberalisation Reduces Demand for Pharmaceutical Medicines

New Research Shows Cannabis Liberalisation Reduces Demand for Pharmaceutical Medicines

It has often been hypothesised that providing access to cannabis has the potential to vastly reduce national healthcare burdens. As research into cannabis increases, its ability to treat and help numerous diseases is still being understood. 

Until now there has been little evidence to back this hypothesis due to a lack of research being carried out in the area. However a recent study provides the first analysis of “Do-it-Yourself Medicine” concerning cannabis consumption by studying the effects of the unintended liberalization of light cannabis that took place in Italy in 2016 on prescription drugs sales.

Italy has historically been a prolific cultivator of hemp; at one time in the 1940s they were the second largest producer of industrial cannabis worldwide. Despite this cannabis remains legal only for industrial or medical purposes. This won't come as a surprise to those that are tuned into cannabis-related affairs in the UK where we have seen that mass cultivation does not equate to legalisation, even when key members of the government profit directly from such cultivation

In 2016, the government passed a law intended to regulate and provide incentives for the cultivation of hemp. However the legislation failed to explicitly prohibit the commercialisation of the cannabis flower. As a result, the sale of cannabis flower that is low in THC (<0.2% THC content) but rich in CBD was made possible via this legislative gap. 

From May 2017 onwards, several startups exploited this grey market and started selling cannabis flowers as a “technical product”, that is as a collector’s item not meant to be smoked or consumed. Hemp flowers have since skyrocketed in popularity and are widely available in headshops, herbal outlets and even vending machines. 

 

Method of Study

The research provides a useful and unique perspective in that they study the unintended liberalisation of cannabis, achieved through a legislative void rather than an intended institutional shift in the law. This differs from so-called medical marijuana, which requires a doctor’s prescription and is often difficult to access even by qualified patients; light cannabis does not have any therapeutical indication and it is of easy access. The research authors note that this provides a unique opportunity to estimate the substitutional effects between traditional prescribed drugs and CBD (otherwise known as cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating compound found in abundance within the hemp plant). 

The study seeks to evaluate the causal effect of the availability of CBD flower on the sales of several types of drugs for which cannabis can be regarded as an effective substitute: opioids, anxiolytics, sedatives, anti-migraines, anti-epileptics, anti-psychotics and anti-depressives.

Whereas the majority of studies in this area are centered around medical cannabis, here the focus is instead on self-medication, that is, the possibility of seeking relief with non-prescribed, unofficial or alternative treatments resulting from the local availability of the product.

Findings

The research found that the local availability of CBD flower led to a significant decrease in the number of packets of drugs dispensed by the Italian NHS. Specifically, after the introduction of the policy, it was found that the arrival of CBD flower in a given province led to a reduction in the number of dispensed boxes of anxiolytics by approximately 11.5%, reduction of dispensed sedatives by 10% and a reduction of dispensed anti-psychotics by 4.8%. 

The results indicate that even a mild form of liberalisation may generate a significant spillover effect on the market for pharmaceuticals and thus contribute towards lightening the financial burden on healthcare institutions. 

Despite popular opinion, hemp flower remains illegal in the UK. With recent raids in the UK due to businesses selling CBD flower, it begs the question: why is hemp flower still illegal in the UK?

 

Link to full study: 

https://www.york.ac.uk/media/economics/documents/hedg/workingpapers/1907.pdf

 

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