Medical marijuana is legal in half of U.S. states and the District of Columbia. More state legislatures are now considering bills to do the same. Yet while many people are using medical marijuana, the FDA has not approved it as a treatment because there haven’t been enough studies to prove that it’s safe and effective.
Why hasn’t more research been done? One reason is that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. These drugs are abused and lacking in medical value. Therefore, researchers need a special license to study it.
At one time, the DEA considered reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug like Ritalin or oxycodone, but decided in August to keep it as a Schedule I drug.
The agency did, however, agree to support additional research on marijuana and make the process easier for researchers.
Medical Marijuana: What Is it?
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: Uses
Medical marijuana is used to treat a number of different conditions, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Appetite loss
- Crohn’s disease
- Eating disorders such as anorexia
- Mental health conditions like schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle spasms
- Wasting syndrome (cachexia)
But it’s not yet proven to help many of these conditions.
At best, the therapeutic effects of cannabis appear to reduce chronic pain, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy.
In general, cannabinoids, the active chemicals in medical marijuana are similar to chemicals the body makes that are involved in appetite, memory, movement, and pain.
Research suggests cannabinoids might:
- Reduce anxiety
- Reduce inflammation and relieve pain
- Control nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy
- Kill cancer cells and slow tumor growth
- Relax tight muscles in people with MS
- Stimulate appetite and improve weight gain in people with cancer and AIDS
Medical Marijuana: How to Get it
To get medical marijuana, you need a written recommendation from a licensed doctor in states where that is legal. You must have a condition that qualifies for medical marijuana use. Each state has its own list of qualifying conditions. Your state may also require you to get a medical marijuana ID card. Once you have that card, you can buy medical marijuana at a store called a dispensary.
Medical Marijuana: Side Affects
Mediacl marijuana produces serious side effects. They include:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Fast heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
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 can affect IQ and mental function.
Because marijuana contains some of the same chemicals found in tobacco, there are 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. 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.
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.
Indeed, a recent study showed that edible medical marijuana products like brownies and lollipops had less marijuana in them than advertised. This is a serious problem.