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Medical Marijuana FAQ

In this Article

In this Article
In this Article
  • What is medical marijuana?
  • What is medical marijuana used for?
  • How does it help?
  • Can medical marijuana help with seizure disorders?
  • Has the FDA approved medical marijuana?
  • How do you take it?
  • What are the side effects of medical marijuana?
  • Which states allow medical marijuana?
  • How do you get medical marijuana?

While every state has laws dictating the use ofВ medical marijuana, more than two thirds of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have actually legalized it for medical treatmentsВ and more are considering bills to do the same. Yet while many people are using marijuana, the FDA has only approved it for treatment of two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Dravet syndrome andВ Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.В

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, and likely to be abused and lacking in medical value. Because of that, researchers need a special license to study it, says Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, a substance abuse specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

That may not change anytime soon. The DEA considered reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug like Ritalin or oxycodone, but decided ito 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. “Research is critically needed, because we have to be able to advise patients and doctors on the safe and effective use of cannabis,” Bonn-Miller says.

He shared some background on medical marijuana’s uses and potential side effects.

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.

What is medical marijuana used for?

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

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Appetite loss
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Diseases effecting the immune system like HIV/AIDS or Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia
  • Epilepsy
  • Glaucoma
  • Mental health conditions like schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Wasting syndrome (cachexia)

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 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

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.В

Has the FDA approved medical marijuana?

The cannabidiol EpidiolexВ was approved in 2018 for treatingВ 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 (Marinol, Syndros) and nabilone (Cesamet) — to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. The cannabidiol EpidiolexВ was approved in 2018 for treatingВ 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 skin in 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:

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Hallucinations
  • 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 might affect IQ and mental function.

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.”В В 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.”

Which states allow medical marijuana?

Medical marijuana is legal in 33В states and the District of Columbia:

  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

States allowing legal recreational use include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington

States that allow restricted use only include: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina,South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia,В Wisconsin and Wyoming.В

How do you get medical marijuana?

To get medical marijuana, you need a written recommendation from a licensed doctor in states where that is legal. (Not every doctor is willing to recommend medical marijuana for their patients.) 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.

Sources

Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, adjunct assistant professor, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

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

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

Drug Enforcement Administration: “Drug Schedules.”

Department of Health and Human Services.

Kaur, R. Current Clinical Pharmacology, April 2016.

PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board: “Cannabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ).”

Schrot, R. Annals of Medicine, May 2016.

Epilepsy Foundation: “Learn About Medical Marijuana and Epilepsy.”

News release, Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s office.

WebMD shows you how medical marijuana works where it’s legal, what it’s used for and what side effects it might cause.

What’s the difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis?

A doctor writes: There is evidence that cannabis preparations may be useful for treating some forms of pain

The medicinal use of cannabis has become increasingly common, as a number of states in the US and several countries in Europe have legalised possession and use for this purpose. Photograph: Reuters/Amir Cohen

Ireland is “sleepwalking” into the legalisation of cannabis on the back of a campaign of misinformation about the drug, according to doctors who have set up a new group to campaign against liberalisation. They say they are treating ever-growing numbers of patients suffering a range of side effects caused by the drug.

The 20 doctors accept there is “limited evidence” some products using cannabinoids have medical benefits for “a very small number of conditions” but say this has been “grossly distorted” to imply the entire plant can be considered a medicine.

How has medical advice around cannabis use changed in recent years?

The medicinal use of cannabis has become increasingly common, as a number of states in the US and several countries in Europe and South America have legalised possession and use for this purpose. In some places the crude cannabis plant is permitted to be used, while there are also some registered pharmaceutical preparations developed from the plant, such as Sativex.

A cannabis derivative, nabilone, is used to treat nausea and vomiting brought on by chemotherapy treatment in cancer patients. Cannabis has been shown to reduce the increased pressure in the eyeball that leads to glaucoma. Sativex, which contains two active cannabis derivatives, is an oral spray that has been shown to improve symptoms in MS patients with moderate to severe spasticity. There is evidence that cannabis preparations may be useful for treating some forms of pain. Cannabis is also used in the treatment of two rare forms of epilepsy.

What is the difference between medicinal and recreational cannabis?

The primary active ingredient in cannabis is THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is responsible for the mood-altering effects of cannabis. But it also contains cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound. The effectiveness and safety of manufactured medicinal cannabis products will depend on the balance of THC and CBD in each.

How much cannabis use is considered damaging to your health?

In general the more cannabis you smoke, the greater the likelihood of harm. A 2017 National Academy of Medicine report stated: “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk.”

What are the negative health impacts associated with cannabis use?

Short-term effects include: panic reactions, confusion and feelings of paranoia; nausea, headaches and reddened eyes; increased heart rate for up to three hours after smoking; and dizziness, with impaired concentration.

Over the long term, cannabis smoking damages lung function. Regular users may become apathetic and neglect their work and appearance. The decrease in concentration produced by cannabis can be dangerous when driving or operating heavy machinery. And there is no doubt that in susceptible individuals, it can precipitate a psychotic episode, and trigger the onset of schizophrenia.

Over the long term, cannabis smoking damages lung function. Regular users may become apathetic and neglect their work and appearance. File photograph: iStock

Are there concerns around the potency of the drug?

Cannabis can be genetically engineered to make it stronger. “Skunk” has much greater potency compared with “weed” or “grass”. The fourth drug prevalence survey, recently published by the National Advisory Committee on Drugs and Alcohol, shows what type of cannabis people are using in Ireland. It found that almost 50 per cent of those who used cannabis in the last month reported using weed; 28 per cent used grass; 2 per cent herb; and 2 per cent had used skunk.

Is cannabis considered addictive?

Yes it is. About 10 per cent of users become dependent. Latest treatment figures from the Health Research Board show cannabis was the second most common drug of abuse, accounting for 25 per cent of cases treated in 2017.

A doctor writes: There is evidence that cannabis preparations may be useful for treating some forms of pain ]]>