Poor people may benefit from legal medical marijuana, but their access to the medicine is often limited.

Poor people may benefit from legal medical marijuana, but their access to the medicine is often limited. Image source: Flickr user Mark.

Medical marijuana is a great solution for poor people with chronic illnesses! At least, that’s what I thought when I began researching medical marijuana. But the more I talked to people who use medical marijuana and heard about their struggles to purchase their medicine and their concerns about the quality of some sources, the more I realized that medical marijuana’s relationship to poverty is not as cut-and-dry as I thought.

Poor people are more likely to suffer from both mental and physical ailments due to a lack of access to healthy food, medical care, and other resources, along with higher levels of stress and more frequent exposure to toxins. While addressing poverty directly is the best solution for reducing illness among poor people, it is unlikely to happen anytime soon, and medical marijuana can help treat many ailments that impoverished people suffer from now.

Medical marijuana has been approved in many states to treat mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD—all of which poor people experience at higher rates. Marijuana is also a promising treatment for diabetes, obesity, and asthma, in addition to  chronic nausea and pain associated with several poverty-related conditions. While many of these diseases can be treated or controlled with currently legal medications, marijuana often offers the best results and the cheapest solution. But several other factors complicate the everyday use of medical marijuana for people living in poverty.

Medical Marijuana and Employment

Disease and poverty often have a cyclical relationship. People with chronic diseases may find themselves unable to work when mental conditions, such as depression or anxiety, make it difficult to get out of bed and interact with people on a daily basis. Or physical ailments—such as arthritis or Crohn’s—can make simple work tasks painfully unbearable. Even people who are economically comfortable may find that their savings dwindle, and they quickly become entrenched in poverty once they are diagnosed with a chronic disease. For these people, medical marijuana may be one of the few treatments effective enough to allow them to continue working.

Two of the main acceptable uses of medical marijuana are to treat chronic pain and to control nausea patients experience due to their disease or medications. Often, medical marijuana is a last resort after other types of medication have been unsuccessful. Controlling pain and nausea allows a patient to show up for work on a regular basis and to engage in the more stressful, physically demanding positions that people in poverty are often employed in.

The sad twist to this is that in most states, employees can still be fired if they use medical marijuana—even if they are not under the influence of marijuana while at work. Because marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, medical use is not protected under federal discrimination laws. This can create a hostile environment for people who need to use marijuana in order to complete their tasks at work.

The Cost of Medical Treatment Can Be Prohibitive 

For most poor people, one of the main issues with medical care is the cost of medications. Even if an individual can afford to go to the doctor and get a diagnosis, they may not be able to get their prescriptions filled. In some states, medical marijuana offers a solution for people who are unable to afford the cost of synthetic medication. In 2010, the average cost of prescription medications was $1,432/year. While this number may seem low at first, it includes people who only purchased medication once or twice and is the amount paid after insurance coverage. People who need daily medication and have insufficient insurance pay considerably larger amounts. In New York, a monthly supply of medical marijuana can cost between $100-$300, so many individuals with chronic diseases may find medical marijuana is cheaper than most alternatives.

Even so, the fact that insurance companies don’t cover marijuana can make it cost prohibitive, and some states have rules barring the sale of marijuana plants. Only pills, oils, and vapor solutions can be sold for medical purposes, which drives up the cost of medical marijuana, leading many poor people to continue buying marijuana through illegal channels. This allows wealthy people to benefit from the regulations in the medical marijuana industry while poor people may be exposed to marijuana laced with synthetic compounds or pesticides. And when poor people buy black market marijuana, they may be tempted to skip going to a doctor or therapist for a prescription. Self-diagnosis and self-treatment without the input of a medical professional is not effective and can negatively impact an individual’s life.

Some states—such as California, Washington D.C., and New Jersey—are trying to combat this trend by creating programs to ensure medical marijuana is available to impoverished residents. Programs include discounts for poor people, state prescription programs similar to Medicaid, and requiring dispensaries to provide a certain percentage of medication free of charge.

Legalization Could Hurt Impoverished Cultivators

Providing medical-grade marijuana to impoverished patients is only one side of the equation, though. It is also necessary to understand how the legalization and regulation of medical marijuana affects cultivators. In many areas, impoverished people have turned to the cultivation of marijuana in order to earn a living or supplement their income. This is especially true in rural areas where job opportunities are scarce. While the common assumption may be that legalization will allow growers to get out of the black market, the opposite actually happens. Small operations cannot meet the new regulations or offer their product at the same prices that larger operations offer, leaving impoverished growers to continue working in the black market. Unregulated growing practices can be dangerous for consumers— who do not know the quality, purity, or strength of the product— and growers— who have no legal protections. For the safety of patients and growers, it is important that we consider pathways that allow impoverished growers to meet safety standards and integrate their product into the medical community.

While medical marijuana can be a powerful tool to combat poverty-related disease and illness, it is far from perfect. The current medical systems in place in the United States continue to prevent access to medical marijuana and artificially drive up the prices of the medicine where it is legal. This often prevents people who need it the most—poor people with chronic illnesses—from buying it. Also, the conflict between the federal and state legality of the medicine makes the black market a highly competitive force in medical marijuana sales and puts the poor at risk of losing their jobs or suffering other legal consequences after using the medicine. When considering medical marijuana and poverty, it is not enough to say that marijuana can solve many medical problems for America’s poor. We also need to consider access, support, and the ways that marijuana interacts with the overall life of impoverished patients.