Cannabis or Pharma: Which Costs More for the Same Condition?
The cost to stay well can be impossible to manage for some families, especially as the dollars reach into the tens of thousands, annually. Cannabis is usually the cheaper option, but that is not across the board.
When I was in high school and played for the varsity basketball team, it was a social requirement that I, and every other player on the team, wear the coolest basketball shoes. If you’re not privy to the ‘basketball shoe scene’, one pair can easily cost more than $100, with prices often elevating above $200.
Not only were we expected to wear a cool pair of shoes while on the court, but we also had to have more than one. In short, the cost of basketball shoes, when I was in high school, was exorbitant. But, was this necessary? Would my performance on the court have changed if I had been wearing a pair of Reebok shoes instead of the coveted Jordans?
Even if you don’t know much about the pressures of athletic apparel, you’ve probably felt something similar with your health care; there’s a massive difference between the cost of cannabis versus pharmaceuticals.
Epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis are key conditions for which cannabis is acceptable to prescribe. All of these are qualifying conditions in legal states. But, is it always cheaper and more effective to go with cannabis? For the purposes of discussion, we are going to pretend that all medications reviewed below are similarly effective. In the interest of keeping it simple: How much does it cost to stay well?
When it comes to treating illnesses for our children, there are few things as heartbreaking as seeing them suffer through epileptic seizures. And even more so to have run through all of the pharmaceutical options, only to watch your child slip further and further away as seizures continue to govern his or her little body.
The good news is that cannabis works for the majority of patients with epilepsy, but it comes with a huge expense, one that is not covered by many health insurance plans. Radio New Zealand reported on the story of two-year-old Jai Bowers-Anstis, who suffered from seizures since he was nine-months old. His mother describes how she would have to time the seizure and wait to hit the 10-minute mark before she could dispense a round of midazolam. A single dose costs $30 to $400 dollars (USD), depending on the strength needed to suppress the seizures.
Unfortunately, treating refractory epilepsy with cannabis, can cost up to $100,000/year for an adult or teenager. Remember too, that there are few insurance options and no subsidies for cannabis medicine (in most geographic regions).
Jai’s family uses Tilray CBD at a cost of $1300 per month, but it is expected that the costs will continue to balloon as Jai grows bigger and needs more ml/kg to manage the condition.
Two other important strains for treating epilepsy are Charlotte’s Web and Haleigh’s Hope. Both are coming in at about 11 cents per milligram with the average patient needing the equivalent of $250 per month. Again, these prices will change depending on the severity and frequency of the seizures and the age of the patient.
The great news is that cannabis has been able to stop seizures when pharmaceuticals have stopped working. If your child was afflicted, you would do anything…but $100,000 a year is out of reach for most families.
According to a 2015 study that appeared in Neurology, pharmaceuticals for MS treatment in the United States have ballooned from just over $16,000/year in 2004 to a whopping $60,000/year, barely a decade later! Fortunately, many of these costs are covered by private health insurance and government programs.
It certainly doesn’t cost $16,000/year to treat MS with cannabis, and—pending a world-ending disaster like a blight that kills cannabis plants —the price of a plant will never increase by four times over the course of a decade. This medicine, again, is not usually subsidized. The average cost for treating the symptoms of MS with cannabis would be $300 per month or $3600 per year. This includes access to cannabis oil and topicals.
If you’re wondering how well cannabis treats MS, according to a 2018 review of clinical reviews that was published by Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, cannabinoids effectively treat MS pain and spasticity.
Finally, let’s have a look at another prevalent disease in American society: rheumatoid arthritis. According to WebMD, RA medicine can cost up to $3,000/month. At $36,000/year, a person suffering from RA could buy more premium cannabis than they could possibly consume. Interestingly, cannabinoids treat RA in two ways: by reducing inflammation and combatting pain. The Arthritis Society has even funded research into the anecdotal reports that cannabis is reversing the damage to arthritic joints.
A 2016 study, in the European Journal of Pain, showed how transdermal applications of CBD significantly reduced pain associated with arthritis in rats without psychoactive effect. Furthermore, a heavily-cited 2010 study in Future Medicinal Chemistry spoke to the anti-inflammatory nature of cannabinoids.
Given the extreme costs of pharmaceutical drugs and the —according to their own commercials— significant side effects, it seems absurd that cannabis should be thought of as anything less than a viable alternative. Its highly effective medicinal properties, coupled with its ease to grow and process, means that—given equal access—more people can be treated for debilitating diseases.
When I played basketball in high school, it wasn’t only the style, but the quality of the Jordan brand shoes that made them so desirable. It looks as though cannabis may be the Jordan brand shoes of medicine—without the outrageous cost.