With cannabis legalized by most states and D.C., the fight between medical marijuana vs. big pharma is starting to heat up. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence and an apparent shift in the public’s perception of cannabis consumption, Big Pharma’s efforts to fight marijuana legalization roll out across the country like clockwork every election cycle.

From running anti-cannabis advertisements to making large donor contributions to anti-legalization efforts in various states, anti-marijuana campaigns by pharmaceutical and alcohol companies have made it clear that some industry giants are leery legal marijuana’s growing clout.

Medical Marijuana vs. Big Pharma

For example, Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories, creators of painkillers OxyContin and Vicodin, respectively, are two of the largest contributors to the Anti-Drug Coalition of America. Another big spender in anti-marijuana propaganda is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, who spent nearly $19 million on anti-marijuana lobbying in 2015 alone.

In November of last year, Arizona-based company Insys Therapeutics, best known for Subsys, a powerful fentanyl-based painkiller for cancer patients, made headlines for its half a million contribution to the organization opposing Arizona’s recreational marijuana ballot measure.


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, fentanyl is “a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.”  It’s considered both highly addictive and potentially deadly.

Alcohol lobby breaks rank to support recreational marijuana in Las Vegas

Despite the alcohol industry’s opposition to cannabis legalization in Massachusetts and Arizona, the alcohol industry in neighboring Nevada is among one of the biggest cannabis supporters when it comes to medical marijuana vs. big pharma.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, the alcohol lobby contributed more than $88,000 to Nevada’s recreational marijuana campaign. The support of the liquor lobby in Nevada was dependent upon the inclusion of verbiage that gave alcohol distributors the sole right to sell cannabis for the first 18 months and has since been the source of much local controversy.

Medical marijuana helping Medicare patients replace pharmaceuticals

Despite the small snags in Nevada’s rollout of recreational marijuana, the Silver State’s official end to marijuana prohibition could spell more disaster for big pharma. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, opiate overdoses dropped by approximately 25% in states with legalized medical marijuana when compared to states with prohibited cannabis sales.

Per researchers, the findings of the study implied that patients could use medical marijuana to treat their pain instead of relying solely on opioid painkillers. In 2016, research published by the University of Georgia supported this claim, finding that Medicare prescriptions for the treatment of chronic pain and anxiety dropped in states with legalized medical marijuana.

The study, which looked at prescriptions issued between 2010 and 2013, found that use of medical marijuana saved Medicare approximately $165 million in 2013. The study went even further, estimating that expenditures for Medicare Part D, the government-funded health insurance portion of Medicare that subsidizes prescription drug costs, would drop by $470 million a year if medical marijuana became legalized at a national level.

From price hikes to accidental deaths, it’s not looking good for Big Pharma

When taking this data into account with the growing cost of prescription drugs and a growing opioid epidemic, it’s no wonder that Big Pharma is trying to slow down the anti-prohibition movement in America.

According to one benefits management company, Express Scripts, the cost of brand-name pharmaceuticals has increased by a shocking 127% since 2008. And, according to a June 2017 report by the New York Times, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental deaths of those under 50 in the US, with the number of opioid-related deaths increasing by almost 20% between 2015 and 2016.

Between the increased costs of pharmaceuticals and the threat of opioid addiction, perhaps it’s no surprise that patients and patient advocates continue to push for the end of marijuana prohibition. States are also seeing the benefit of en masse consumer interest as well.

In 2015, Colorado’s recreational marijuana sales reached almost a billion dollars, raking in more than $135 million in tax revenue that went back to the state. Nevada’s own Governor Brian Sandoval anticipates seeing an estimated $700 million dollars added to the state’s coffers over the next two years. The first part of the funds has been promised to UNLV and state scholarship programs, while the rest of the funds are expected to go to the state’s general fund.

With that much money in play, it’s not a surprise that investors and special interest groups have already begun to flex their muscles. Pro-cannabis political action committees (PAC), like Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) PAC and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) PAC, have both been instrumental in leveraging their support of state and federal candidates committed to legalizing medical marijuana and regulating recreational cannabis.

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