Big Pharma won’t be happy about marijuana cutting its profits

Before we start talking about pot and why the federal ban should end, here are some numbers to consider.

Seventy-two U.S. senators accepted pharmaceutical industry donations ahead of the 2020 election. That number was 302 for the House. Combined, that’s more than two-thirds of Congress.

If this makes you sick, you might want to sit down for this: More than 2,400 state lawmakers across the country have cashed checks from drug lobbyists, including 82% of California state lawmakers, who has a deep blue legislature. That’s tied with 84% of lawmakers in Louisiana, a redder state than Mississippi, in case you’re tempted to see that as a partisan issue.

In 2021, the lobbying industry broke its overall record – eclipsing $3.7 billion – with experts pointing to renewed congressional efforts to cut prescription costs as the main driver of soaring pharmaceutical spending. Apparently some people are happy with the status quo and are ready to fight for it.

For the rest of us, a recent study from Cornell University might offer some relief. Researchers looked at Medicaid prescribing data between 2011 and 2019 and found a drop in drug use among Medicaid enrollees with access to recreational marijuana. We’re talking about drugs to treat pain, depression, anxiety, or to help with sleep, you know, the kind with TV commercials.

The report, published in the journal Health Economics on Good Friday (do what you want with it), said its “findings suggest prescription drug substitution and potential savings for state Medicaid programs.”

I wonder how Big Pharma took the news. It already spends more than any other industry to fight cost-cutting measures. Now every dispensary or grower of marijuana in America is potentially a threat.

Shyam Raman, one of the study’s researchers, also said the results “indicate an opportunity to reduce the harm that can result from dangerous side effects associated with certain prescription medications.” (Think of that long list of horrible side effects we usually hear at the end of those commercials.)

Yes, it is important to underline that it is not because an elected official accepts money from lobbyists that it is automatically in anyone’s pocket. It is also important to stress that lobbyists do not give money in the hope of having less influence.

Perhaps it’s just a misfortune that spending on prescription drugs in the United States is about double that of comparable countries, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It is perhaps coincidental that for 17 of the world’s top 20 prescription drugs, pharmaceutical companies pulled in more sales in the United States than sales in all other countries combined. Or maybe donating to more than 60% of members of Congress has its benefits.

The question now is: how much more is Big Pharma willing to spend to keep things as they are? In 1960, national health expenditure was 5% of GDP. Today, it is at a record high of 19.7%. Last September, when the Democrats’ proposal to cut prices failed in a House committee, two of the three moderates who voted against received more than $100,000 each from the drug lobby, according to an analysis by Stat.

Back to the pot.

Earlier this month, the House passed the MORE Act, a bill that would remove marijuana from the list of prohibited controlled substances, effectively ending prohibition. It fell from 220 to 204, mostly along party lines. The last time the bill passed the House, the Senate did not retain it. This time, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had promised to introduce his bill to end prohibition – the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act – in April, but now says that he will do so before the August recess, likely to try to drum up more support or use as a campaign stake for midterms. Regardless of when it is introduced, it is doubtful that 10 Senate Republicans will support the effort.

This is why we should keep our eyes on the money. Big Pharma was already on red alert with rumors of price-cutting legislation. Now, on the heels of studies that found a decline in prescription drug use among Medicare enrollees with access to medical marijuana, a report points to a similar pattern in recreational use. The end of Prohibition could pose a significant challenge to pharmaceutical executives whose shareholders are concerned about the bottom line. Could that be part of the reason Congress is in no rush to do so?

LZ Granderson is an Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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