Does Medicare Cover Medical Marijuana?
As more and more states legalize medical marijuana, its use by seniors is on the rise. In our research for this article, we contacted several dispensaries here in Illinois, and we were shocked by the sound coming from the other end!
The background noise on the receiver sounded like a busy restaurant, a true testament to how busy these establishments are.
Currently, 47 of the 50 states have legalized the medical use of marijuana in some form, and several states – including Illinois – have fully legalized marijuana (O.Berk). The only states that have yet to legalize medical marijuana are Idaho, Nebraska, and South Dakota, but there is speculation that they will be on board soon.
With this widespread legalization, some doctors are prescribing Cannabis, or marijuana, to treat their patients for many different medical conditions, including epilepsy, PTSD, and chronic pain.
The number of seniors 65 and over that reported using marijuana went from 2.4% in 2015 to 4.2% in 2018 (JAMA Internal Medicine). That number is now considered to be even higher.
What Is Medical Marijuana?
Medical marijuana is the use of the Cannabis Sativa (marijuana) plant to treat specific diseases, symptoms, and conditions.
Interestingly enough, Cannabis was used for centuries around the world for medicinal purposes as well as for things such as food, body care products, a fuel source, and nutritional supplements.
Because of its mind-altering effects, marijuana is highly controversial and was illegal in the United States until California legalized it for medical purposes in 1996. Other states began following suit with some form of legalized medical marijuana use.
Each state has its own set of laws pertaining to the sales and extent of use of medical marijuana. In states where it’s legal, there are stores, often called Dispensaries, that sell marijuana products in various forms:
- Edibles, such as candies or cookies
- Oils and extracts
- Plant form, to be smoked or inhaled
Medical Marijuana in Illinois
In August of 2013, Illinois became the 20th state to legalize medical marijuana. The Medical Cannabis Registry Program allows patients access to medical marijuana who meet a qualifying condition.
On January 1, 2020, Illinois officially allowed adults ages 21+ to use marijuana recreationally, with or without a medical marijuana card.
While any adult can now purchase and use marijuana, regardless of medical necessity, only medical marijuana patients can grow marijuana at home (Illinois Policy).
Also, it’s worth noting that many Illinois dispensaries aren’t ready to accommodate Adult-Use marijuana shoppers. One dispensary says they’ll be ready for those consumers mid-year, so in reality, you still need a medical marijuana card to purchase medical marijuana in Illinois.
In order to qualify for a medical marijuana card in Illinois, you must be diagnosed with one of the following debilitating conditions (Illinois.gov):
- Agitation of Alzheimer’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Anorexia nervosa
- Arnold-Chiari malformation
- Cachexia/wasting syndrome
- Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
- Chronic pain
- Crohn’s disease
- CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome Type II)
- Ehlers-Danlos syndrome
- Fibrous Dysplasia
- Hepatitis C
- Interstitial cystitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Muscular Dystrophy
- Myasthenia Gravis
- Nail-patella syndrome
- Neuro-Bechet’s autoimmune disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)
- Post-Concussion Syndrome
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Reflex sympathetic dystrophy
- Residual limb pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Seizures (including those characteristic of Epilepsy)
- Severe fibromyalgia
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Spinal cord disease (including but not limited to arachnoiditis)
- Spinal cord injury is damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
- Spinocerebellar ataxia
- Superior canal dehiscence syndrome
- Tarlov cysts
- Tourette syndrome
- Traumatic brain injury
- Ulcerative colitis
THC and CBD – What Are They?
ProCon explains that marijuana has over 60 chemicals called cannabinoids. Of these many chemicals, the two main ones used in the medicinal application of marijuana are:
- Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC – the element that has a mind-altering effect and produces the feeling of being “high.”
- Cannabidiol, or CBD – a substance having significantly less psychoactive effects, therefore not producing the feeling of being “high.”
CBD contains the majority of the medical benefits and has proven to be anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, antioxidant, and neuroprotective.
CBD oil is a catch-all term that describes CBD extracts more broadly. CBD oil is all the rave right now, with many users claiming it can help you:
- Sleep better
- Ease anxiety
- Cut down inflammation
- Reduce seizures
- Reduce pain
- Treat acne
- Treat cancer by preventing cancer cell growth
CBD oil products can be taken orally as a pill or rubbed onto the skin as a gel or a cream. Some products are even administered by spraying it under the tongue.
There have been very few studies done on the medical effectiveness of CBD oil, and it’s not regulated by the FDA, which means you don’t truly know what’s in that CBD oil product.
A 2017 study led by Bonn-Miller found that nearly 70% of CBD products didn’t contain the amount of CBD stated on the label (WebMD).
Experts advise you to be cautious when buying CBD oil and also be aware of the potential side effects which include depression, dizziness, low blood pressure, and even hallucinations.
Does Medicare Cover Medical Marijuana?
Even though every state has voted for medical marijuana to be legal in some way, the Federal government still considers it to be an illegal drug.
Medicare is a federally funded program, and it will not cover drugs that aren’t recognized by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) as having a medicinal purpose.
Under the Federal Controlled Substance Act, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance.
Any drugs that are considered to have no medical use and have a high potential for addiction fall under Schedule I – that means drugs like heroin and LSD are in the same category as marijuana. There has been pressure to move marijuana to Schedule II, but no action has taken place as of yet.
“If you fall down and break your hip because of marijuana, Medicare will cover it,” John Hockaday, Co-Founder of Sams/Hockaday, laughs. But in short, Medicare does not cover medical marijuana, and it definitely won’t as long as it is considered a Schedule I drug.
Is There Any Possibility of Medicare Coverage for Medical Marijuana in the Future?
In an article published in January, the FDA stated they “understand that there is increasing interest in the potential utility of cannabis for a variety of medical conditions, as well as research on the potential adverse health effects from the use of cannabis.”
This statement alone is a huge step forward, giving hope to future governmental acceptance of Cannabis as a legal drug, therefore possibly being covered by Medicare.
But will it happen soon? Probably not!
Medicare only provides treatments that have been verified through proper research. The process of drug approval, including approval from the FDA, requires extensive studies that can take years, even decades.
The good news for medical marijuana supporters here is that the FDA appears to be on board and is ready to support such studies. In fact, the FDA has already approved the CBD medication Epidiolex to treat two rare forms of childhood epilepsy (WebMD).
Can You Still Use Marijuana for Medical Purposes?
Of course you can – it just isn’t going to be covered by your Medicare plans.
If medical marijuana is a course of treatment you would like to try, start by talking to your licensed healthcare provider.
You can then apply for a medical marijuana card. Once you have your card, you can visit a dispensary and purchase the Cannabis-based treatment you need or even grow marijuana at home.
How Much Does Medical Marijuana Cost in Illinois?
Since Medicare doesn’t cover medical marijuana, you will have to pay the full price. However, most dispensaries in Illinois offer discounts to people with specific disabilities in addition to veterans.
Related Reading: What You Should Know About CHAMPVA 100% Health Coverage
Without a discount, the cost varies depending on what you’re looking for. For example, concentrates can range from $50-$75 per gram, and buying the actual flower averages at about $60 for 3.5 grams.
Although the legalization of medical marijuana has taken place at the state levels and not the federal level, it appears as though the federal government is beginning to see the importance of this drug as a medical treatment for many chronic conditions.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
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