What is Medical Marijuana?
Medical marijuana refers to medical treatment and therapy using parts of the cannabis herb,
or synthetic forms of the herb, per a physician's recommendation.
The history of marijuana as medicine is longer and richer than its history
as an intoxicant. As early as 2,737 BCE, Chinese Emperor Shen Neng prescribed
cannabis tea for medical treatment of malaria, gout, rheumatism, and poor
memory. Cannabis treatment stretched through Asia and the Middle East,
then down Africa's eastern coast. Ancient texts reveal that the Chinese
were aware of, and sometimes used the drug for, its hallucinogenic effects,
but this use of the drug was largely discredited during a political overtaking
and change of dynasties. Cannabis remains one of the "Fifty Fundamental
Herbs of Chinese Medicine," along with such innocuous substances
as cinnamon and mint. The ancient Egyptian medical text Ebers Papyrus
contained recommendations for medical use of marijuana, written around
1,550 BC. Historians believe that marijuana was used and prescribed by
Egyptians many years before this more formal recommendation was written.
Today, far more people use marijuana (for recreational or medicinal reasons)
than other illicit drugs, with at least ten times as many worldwide users
than cocaine and heroin.
Marijuana has been a presence in America since colonial times when the
plant was introduced to Jamestown in 1622 and became a profitable crop.
Irish doctor William O'Shaughnessy helped increase marijuana's
popularity in America and England, claiming that the drug could reduce
nausea, pain, and discomfort. In the late 1700's, American medical
journals even recommended cannabis to treat venereal disease, incontinence,
and inflamed skin. Even the British Queen Victoria treated menstrual discomfort
with cannabis. However, when aspirin arrived in America and the U.K.,
cannabis use declined as aspirin became the primary treatment and prescription
for pain. Marijuana use did not become popular again until the Prohibition
era of the 1920's, where the plant was prevalent in speakeasies and
jazz clubs as an intoxicant. Up until the 1903's, doctors even prescribed
marijuana for various ailments. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics then began
to campaign against marijuana, claiming it was an addictive "gateway
drug" that was dangerous to the public. By 1942, marijuana was illegal
in the United States. Although the plant's medicinal qualities began
to reemerge in the United States in the 1970's, President Reagan's
tough drug policies in the 1980's targeted marijuana, among other
drugs. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified, and continues
to classify, marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it
has no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. In 1997, the White
House Office of National Drug Control Policy asked the Institute of Medicine
to research the effects and potential medical benefits of marijuana. The
Institute of Medicine found that marijuana contained some therapeutic
value that could potentially treat serious medical conditions, and some
similar studies followed suit. Recently, several states have recognized
legal uses of marijuana for medical treatment.
Today, most countries outlaw medical marijuana use. However, some countries,
including the United States, permit low doses of synthetic cannabis to
treat certain conditions. For example, legal prescription drugs Dronabinol
(Marinol) and Nabilone (Cesamet) contain synthetic cannabis and are available
in the United States to orally treat nausea and vomiting. Marinol fuses
sesame oil and synthetic THC. The human bloodstream absorbs more THC through
Cesamet than Marinol, although the degree of THC actually absorbed varies
from person to person. Also, Canasol is a legal prescription drug containing
cannabinoids used to treat glaucoma.
Medical marijuana supporters contend that cannabis has several medicinal
benefits, such as stimulating hunger in AIDS and chemotherapy patients,
lowering intraocular eye pressure in glaucoma patients, ameliorating vomiting
and nausea, and relieving many forms of chronic pain. In 1988, studies
identified cannabinoid receptors in the human brain and nerve cells, and
two years later discovered that the human body produced natural THC. The
Colorado Constitution recognizes cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, HIV, cachexia,
severe pain, severe nausea, seizures, and muscle spasms as qualifying
debilitating medical conditions that may justify the medical use of marijuana
with a doctor's recommendation.
It is difficult to measure the precise effects and benefits of the different
compounds in cannabis because there are 483 distinct compounds. Anywhere
from 30 to 100 of these compounds are cannabinoids, which are used in
medical and scientific studies and act as antiemetics, antispasmodics,
and appetite stimulants. Five important cannabinoids are: tetrahydrocannabinol
("THC"), cannabidol, cannabinol, ß-caryophyllene, and
cannabigerol. The concentration of THC and other cannabinoids highly varies
based upon the plant's genetics, growing conditions, and how the plant
is processed after harvesting.
THC is a psychoactive compound effective at treating pain and improving
memory and sleep. THC is quickly metabolized and remains active for two
to six hours in the blood. Cannabidol is not psychoactive, constitutes
40% of medical marijuana extracts, and is used to treat anxiety, nausea,
inflammation, and cancer, among other illnesses. Studies suggest that
cannabidol reacts with THC to induce sedation. Cannabinol is a therapeutic
compound that is also produced as a breakdown product of THC. ß-Caryophyllene
aids to reduce tissues inflammation by activating the cannainoid receptor
called CB2. It can be found in concentrated form in cannabis essential
oil. Cannabigerol is not psychoactive and is used to treat glaucoma by
relieving intraoccular pressure.
There are also two different common bud strains of cannabis, Cannabis Sativa
and Cannabis Indica. These different strains of cannabis buds are grown
and combined for a variety of marijuana plants. Cannabis Sativa contains
four to five times more THC than Cannabis Indica, the former triggering
a cerebral high, the latter possessing more sedative and relaxing qualities.
Recently, studies have linked medical marijuana to effective treatment
of numerous conditions and diseases. The drug's effective treatment
of nausea, weak appetite, glaucoma, and chronic pain has been confirmed,
and new areas of benefit have also begun to surface. Studies now link
cannabis-based drugs to relief from migraines, fibromyalgia, and inflammatory
bowel disease, as well as multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries.
Additionally, recent studies suggest that cannabis could help treat alcohol
abuse, asthma, depression, skin tumors, sickle-cell disease, colorectal
cancer, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, glioma, hepatitis C, Huntington's
disease, atherosclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, collagen-induced
arthritis, Parkinson's disease, sleep apnea, anorexia, pruritus, posttraumatic
stress disorder, leukemia, psoriasis, Tourette syndrome, and more. Throughout
these studies, marijuana's calming, relaxing, and sedating qualities
were found to help patients adhere to a strict medication regimen, enhance
appetite, improve mood, and inhibit excitability. Cannabis's anti-inflammatory
effect also helps inhibit cancer cell invasion and induces cancerous cell
death. Treatment with medical marijuana can also minimize stressors or
triggers and manage pain without the adverse side effects of other drugs
and treatment options.
Patients can treat with medical marijuana through several methods, such
as smoking dried plant buds, eating extracts, swallowing capsules, drinking,
vaporizing, or smoking. Although smoking dried plant buds is the fastest
way to deliver THC to the bloodstream, the smoke can be harmful, containing
carcinogens similar to those in tobacco cigarettes. The American Society
of Addiction Medicine claims that marijuana smoke deposits up to four
times the amount of tar in human lungs as tobacco cigarettes. Most medical
reports that advise against medical marijuana treatment emphasize the
dangers of smoking the plant. However, there is debate among researchers
as to whether marijuana smokers face the same grave risks of lung cancer
and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD") as tobacco
smokers. There is some consensus that combining marijuana and tobacco
smoking drastically increases one's risks, while studies conflict
about the risks of marijuana smoking alone.
Vaporizing is a safer delivery system of cannabis. Dispensing the drug
through a vaporizer releases higher amounts of THC, the active medical
ingredient, through a heating device with far fewer dangerous compounds
than inhaled when smoking. Edible marijuana is another delivery system
safer than smoking, but presents dosage issues because there is no immediate
sensation like there is with smoking or vaporizing. Before any method
of delivery, scientists recommend baking marijuana in a home oven at 150
degrees for five minutes to kill any harmful bacteria and fungi living
on the plant from its cultivation. This does not degrade the quality or
quantity of the plant's THC.
Clinical studies show that smoking cannabis reduces intra-ocular pressure
by 24% in glaucoma patients with visual-field changes, making medical
marijuana as effective as current prescription treatments. However, the
downfall is that smoked cannabis only maintains its effect for about three
and a half hours.
Controlled trials tracking the effect of cannabis on multiple sclerosis
patients showed potential anti-inflammatory and antispastic benefits,
but researchers noted that the drug's mood improvement effects could
have essentially tricked patients into believing their tremors were improving.
Similar effects have been reported for those suffering from ALS or Lou
The Scripps Research Institute in California has revealed research that
THC prevents brain deposits associated with Alzheimer's disease. The
chemical effectively blocks protein clumping, which causes memory loss
and inhibited cognition in Alzheimer's patients.
Cannabis may also stop the spread of brain and breast cancer, according
to studies at the Complutense University of Madrid and the California
Pacific Medical Center Research Institute, respectively. For breast cancer,
cannabidol blocks Id-1, a gene that causes cancers cells to aggressively
spread away from the original tumor location. For brain cancer, cannabis
chemicals were found to increase the death of cancer cells by promoting
the process of autophagy, where cells feed upon one another. Amazingly,
THC treatment killed cancer cells while leaving healthy cells undisturbed.
Thus, medical marijuana could be a less harmful alternative treatment
to chemotherapy for certain cancers.
A 2007 study at Columbia University showed that HIV/AIDS patients experienced
substantial increases in appetite and food intake with little to no discomfort
after inhaling cannabis four times per day. Marijuana has also been linked
to pain reduction in HIV/AIDS patients who were unable to manage their
pain with other medications and treatments, according to the University
of California San Diego School of Medicine. In fact, cannabis is suggested
to be the only effective drug to manage pain and pain perception in HIV/AIDS
patients. Plus, marijuana has the added benefits of mood and sleep improvement.
THC injections may also be a safe and effective alternative method to
eliminate opiate dependence. A French research team, after removing rats
from their mother at birth and providing the rats with morphine and heroin,
observed the rat's extreme dependency on the opiates. However, rats
that were injected with THC before exposure to the opiates were less likely
to become dependent because THC counteracted addiction and dependency
triggers in the brain. Studies with humans show that addicts who couple
recovery treatments with cannabis use are more likely to overcome opioid
dependence. Interestingly, these studies are similar to results reported
in 1889 by Edward Birch that opiate addiction could be treated with cannabis.
Marijuana use has been shown to be safe, even if not treating a medical
condition, and even if frequent and long-term. Only collateral harms from
smoking harmful compounds in dry bud smoke have some harmful effects.
Also, recent studies have disproven that marijuana acts as a "gateway
drug" to other, more harmful narcotics and illicit drugs. Studies
now also reveal that marijuana use does not kill brain cells or cause
sterility in male or female reproductive systems. However, potentially
negative effects include marijuana's interference with other prescription
drugs, drowsiness, impairment, and sedation. The drug's effect on
the human immune system and blood pressure is debated and unclear. Marijuana
is far less addictive than other illegal drugs and tobacco. Only one fatal
dose of marijuana has ever been reported, as opposed to hundreds of thousands
of deaths caused annually by prescription medications and harder narcotics.
Some countries have even decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana,
including Portugal, Mexico, Argentina, and some Australian states.
There is debate surrounding marijuana's link to mental disorders such
as schizophrenia. Although some studies have suggested that cannabis use
causes schizophrenia or other psychoses, another reasonable conclusion
from the results is that people with certain mental disorders chose to
use marijuana at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Also,
a recent British study found that instances of schizophrenia and psychoses
have dropped in recent years, although cannabis use has not seen such
a drop. Because marijuana is known to decrease anxiety and improve mood,
scientists believe it could actually help treat mental disorders. The
American Medical Association admits that research is minimal in the medical
marijuana field, largely because the federal government classifies marijuana
as a Schedule I controlled substance, limiting researcher's ability
to legally perform trials and obtain test subjects wary of prosecution
for their use.
The American Medical Association, American College of Physicians, and numerous
organizations dedicated to the eradication of cancer have publically declared
support for further research into the medical benefits of marijuana. The
first step toward increasing the volume of medical studies is to urge
the federal government to reconsider its classification of marijuana as
a Schedule I controlled substance, which makes it incredibly difficult
for researchers to obtain the drug, even for controlled studies. However,
some organizations, such as American Society of Addiction Medicine, have
publically asked physicians to stop recommending medical marijuana, citing
the drug's Schedule I classification and its high potential for abuse.
In America, marijuana, whether used for medical purposes or not, is illegal
under federal law. Specifically, the Controlled Substances Act classifies
marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, which is the strictest
possible classification. Other Schedule I controlled substances include
LSD, ecstasy, and heroin. The Drug Enforcement Administration supports
this classification because cannabis has: no currently accepted medical
use, a high potential for abuse, and a lack of accepted safety for use.
The Federal Food and Drug Administration does not condone the use of smoked
marijuana to treat any disease or condition.
These federal laws and agencies are in apparent conflict with eighteen
U.S. states that have, to some degree, legalized the medical use of marijuana.
Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan,
Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont,
Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia permit certain patients
to use and possess personal amounts of marijuana without the risk of state
prosecution for violation of drug laws. Additionally, in Maryland a state
court may consider a defendant's use of marijuana for medical purposes
as a mitigating factor in state prosecution. As of 2008, California's
medical marijuana industry has generated a staggering $2 billion per year
and about $100 million in state sales taxes.
In October of 2009, Deputy lawyer General David W. Ogden responded to the
explosion of medical marijuana laws by issuing a "Memorandum for
Selected United States lawyers" directing federal prosecutors to
focus their time and resources on large drug cartels and trafficking,
and not individuals using small amounts of marijuana to treat debilitating
diseases in compliance with their state's law. This Memorandum did
not change any law; the use, possession, and cultivation of marijuana
remains wholly illegal under federal law, even if for purportedly medical
purposes. The United States Supreme Court held in both Gonzales v. Raich
and United States v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Coop that the federal
government could regulate marijuana and prosecute its use for any purpose,
even if state laws legalize the drug for medical treatment. However, the
United States Department of Health and Human Services holds the patent
to cannabinoids for medical research. The patent states that cannabinoids
have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and other medically beneficial effects.
Some commentators and bloggers have asserted that this patent reveals
the federal government's hypocrisy by completely outlawing medical
marijuana and asserting it has no medical benefits on the one hand, while
holding a patent for its medical use on the other.
In 2000, Colorado voters approved Amendment 20 to the Colorado Constitution,
now found in Article 18, section 14. The Amendment provides primary care-givers and qualifying patients an
affirmative defense to state prosecution if the patient has been diagnosed
with a debilitating condition, was advised by his doctor to treat his
condition with medical marijuana, and both the care-giver and patient
only possessed a limited amount of marijuana permitted by the Amendment.
Also, in another section, the Amendment permits patients to lawfully use
and possess no more than two ounces of a usable form of marijuana, and
no more than six marijuana plants, with three or fewer being mature, flowering
plants. Colorado maintains a confidential registry of individuals who
have both applied to be, and who are licensed medical marijuana patients.
However, the Amendment forbids patients from using marijuana in a way
that endangers the health of the public or in public view. The full text
of the Amendment can be found at:
In 2012, Colorado passed another amendment to their Constitution called
Amendment 64, now found in Article 18, Section 16.
Canadian law also provides for medical marijuana use by individuals with
debilitating and chronic conditions. Qualifying patients may also grow
their own cannabis plants, or delegate their growing authority to another
person. Health Canada initiated these legal marijuana uses through the
Marihuana Medical Access Regulations in 1999, requiring qualifying patients
to obtain a MMAR form. MMAR forms are strictly confidential between Health
Canada, the physician, and the patient; Canadian colleges are not privy
to this information. Although cannabis use is illegal in England, British
law also provides for certain medical exceptions.
Some of this section was authored by Wikipedia and the sources cited therein.
For more information, visit:
Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research:
Cannabis Therapy Institute:
Medical Marijuana Industry Group:
Cannabis Trade Council:
Americans for Safe Access: