What is Medical Marijuana?

Medical marijuana uses the marijuana plant or chemicals in it to treat diseases or conditions. It’s basically the same product as recreational marijuana, but it’s taken for medical purposes.

The marijuana plant contains more than 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids. Each one has a different effect on the body. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the main chemicals used in medicine. THC also produces the “high” people feel when they smoke marijuana or eat foods containing it.

Medical Marijuana: What Does It Treat?

More and more states are legalizing marijuana to treat pain and illness. Find out what conditions it’s used for and the known side effects.

 

Researchers are studying whether medical marijuana can help treat a number of conditions including:

But it’s not yet proven to help many of these conditions, with a few exceptions, Bonn-Miller says.

“The greatest amount of evidence for the therapeutic effects of cannabis relate to its ability to reduce chronic pain, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and spasticity [tight or stiff muscles] from MS,” Bonn-Miller says.

How does it help?

Cannabinoids — the active chemicals in medical marijuana — are similar to chemicals the body makes that are involved in appetite, memory, movement, and pain.

Limited research suggests cannabinoids might:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce inflammationand relieve pain
  • Control nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy
  • Kill cancercells and slow tumor growth
  • Relax tight muscles in people with MS
  • Stimulate appetite and improve weight gain in people with cancerand AIDS

Can Medical Marijuana help with Seizure Disorders?

Medical marijuana received a lot of attention a few years ago when parents said that a special form of the drug helped control seizures in their children. The FDA recently approved Epidiolex, which is made from CBD, as a therapy for people with very severe or hard-to-treat seizures. In studies, some people had a dramatic drop in seizures after taking this drug.

Has the FDA approved Medical Marijuana?

The cannabidiol Epidiolex was approved in 2018 for treating seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. In addition, the FDA has approved two man-made cannabinoid medicines — dronabinol (MarinolSyndros) and nabilone (Cesamet) — to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. The cannabidiol Epidiolex was approved in 2018 for treating seizures associated with two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

How do you take it?

To take medical marijuana, you can:

  • Smoke it
  • Inhale it through a device called a vaporizer that turns it into a mist
  • Eat it — for example, in a brownie or lollipop
  • Apply it to your skinin a lotion, spray, oil, or cream
  • Place a few drops of a liquid under your tongue

How you take it is up to you. Each method works differently in your body. “If you smoke or vaporize cannabis, you feel the effects very quickly,” Bonn-Miller says. “If you eat it, it takes significantly longer. It can take 1 to 2 hours to experience the effects from edible products.”

What are the Side Effects of Medical Marijuana?

Side effects that have been reported include:

The drug can also affect judgment and coordination, which could lead to accidents and injuries. When used during the teenage years when the brain is still developing, marijuana might affect IQ and mental function.

What Is It?

Medical marijuana is made of dried parts of the Cannabis sativa plant. Humans have turned to it as an herbal remedy for centuries, and today people use it to relieve symptoms or treat various diseases. The federal government still considers it illegal, but some states allow it to treat specific health problems. The FDA, the U.S. agency that regulates medicines, hasn’t approved the plant as a treatment for any conditions.

Key Ingredients

Marijuana has chemicals called cannabinoids. Medical researchers usually focus on the health effects of two in particular: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the substance that makes you high; CBD doesn’t have mind-altering effects.

Forms of Medical Marijuana

There are a variety of ways to take the drug. You can inhale a vaporized spray, smoke the leaves, take a pill or liquid, or bake it into foods. All of the types differ in terms of how often

you should use them, how they’ll affect your symptoms, and side effects you may feel.

How It Works in Your Body

The chemicals in marijuana affect you when they connect with specific parts of cells called receptors. Scientists know that you have cells with cannabinoid receptors in your brain and in your immune system. But the exact process of how the drug affects them isn’t clear yet.

What Does It Treat?

State laws differ on the conditions that you can legally treat with medical marijuana. But you might be allowed to use it if you have Alzheimer’s, ALS, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, seizures, hepatitis C, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, posttraumatic stress disorder, chronic pain, or severe nausea. But scientists aren’t sure that it helps all of these conditions. The research is most clear that it works as a painkiller, to stop vomiting during chemotherapy, to relieve some MS symptoms, and to treat a few rare forms of epilepsy.

Are There Risks?

If you smoke it, you could have breathing problems such as chronic cough and bronchitis. Research has linked cannabis use and car accidents. If you use it while pregnant, you may affect your baby’s health and development. Studies also show a tie between pot and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

FDA-Approved Versions

Although the federal government hasn’t given its OK to marijuana for medicinal use, it has signed off on three related compounds as specific treatments. If you have nausea caused by chemotherapy, you might take a synthetic cannabinoid, either dronabinol or nabilone. Dronabinol also can help boost appetite for people with AIDS. The FDA approved cannabidiol (Epidolex) as a treatment for two rare kinds of epilepsy.

Laws in Conflict

California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, in 1996. Since then, more than half the states in the U.S. have done so. (Recreational weed is also legal in some places.) But the federal government still considers it an illegal drug, which can create confusion. For instance, even if you have a prescription, the Transportation Security Administration doesn’t allow cannabis in your luggage.

How Do You Get it?

The rules vary, depending on where you live. Generally, you’ll need to consult with a doctor and have a condition that your state has approved for treatment with cannabis. You might get an ID card. In some areas, you buy products at a specific store called a dispensary.

Do People Become Addicted?

Doctors don’t know much about the addiction risk for people who use the drug for medical reasons, and it needs more study. But people who use marijuana to get high can go on to have substance misuse issues. The most common problem is dependence. If you’re dependent, you’ll feel withdrawal symptoms if you stop using. If you’re addicted — a more severe problem — you’re unable to go without the drug.

Why Don’t We Know More?

Although cannabis has been an herbal remedy for centuries, the evidence for how well it works is lacking in many cases. Scientists prefer large studies with certain types of controls before they draw conclusions, and much of the research thus far hasn’t met those standards. Products vary in strength and it’s hard to measure doses, which has made judging the benefits of marijuana even more complicated.

An Opioid Alternative?

Could cannabis help solve issues involving these powerful painkillers? In some states, prescriptions for this pain medicine fell and researchers found a link to fewer overdose deaths. But another study found a link between pot use and abuse of these narcotic drugs. Scientists need more evidence before they can say for sure.

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini on 3/19/2019

Because marijuana contains some of the same chemicals found in tobacco, there have been concerns that smoking it could harm the lungs. The effects of inhaled marijuana on lung health aren’t clear, but there’s some evidence it might increase the risk for bronchitis and other lung problems.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says marijuana can be addictive and is considered a “gateway drug” to using other drugs. “The higher the level of THC and the more often you use, the more likely you are to become dependent,” Bonn-Miller says. “You have difficulty stopping if you need to stop. You have cravings during periods when you’re not using. And you need more and more of it to have the same effect.”   Learn more about the long-term effects of marijuana use.

Another issue is that the FDA doesn’t oversee medical marijuana like it does prescription drugs. Although states monitor and regulate sales, they often don’t have the resources to do so. That means the strength of and ingredients in medical marijuana can differ quite a bit depending on where you buy it. “We did a study last year in which we purchased labeled edible products, like brownies and lollipops, in California and Washington. Then we sent them to the lab,” Bonn-Miller says. “Few of the products contained anywhere near what they said they did. That’s a problem.”

References:

Adapted from WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 20, 2020

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SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: “Marijuana and Cancer.”

Mayo Clinic: “Medical Marijuana.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “What Is Medical Marijuana?”

AARP: “Health Tools: Medical Marijuana.”

Parkinson’s Foundation: “Medical Marijuana.”

Mayo Clinic Proceedings: “Medical cannabis.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Marijuana and Cannabinoids.”

Transportation Security Administration: “Medical Marijuana.”

National Conference of State Legislatures: “State Medical Marijuana Laws.”

National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Is Marijuana Addictive?”

Pharmacy: “Weighing the Benefits and Risks of Medical Marijuana Use: A Brief Review.”