Even the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse lists medical uses for cannabis.
There are at least two active chemicals in marijuana that researchers think have medicinal applications. Those are cannabidiol (CBD) — which seems to impact the brain without a high— and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — which has pain relieving properties and is largely responsible for the high.
For some of the following medical benefits, there’s good evidence. For others, there’s reason to continue conducting research.
The American public largely supports the legalization of medical marijuana. At least 84% of the public believes the drug should be legal for medical uses, and recreational pot usage is less controversial than ever, with at least 61% of Americans in support.
Even though some medical benefits of smoking pot may be overstated by advocates of marijuana legalization, recent research has demonstrated that there are legitimate medical uses for marijuana and strong reasons to continue studying the drug’s medicinal uses.
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.
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.”
What is 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.
States allowing legal recreational use include: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington
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.
In addition, several other marijuana-based medications have been approved or are undergoing clinical trials. Nabiximols (Sativex ® ), a mouth spray that is currently available in the United Kingdom, Canada, and several European countries for treating the spasticity and neuropathic pain that may accompany multiple sclerosis, combines THC with another chemical found in marijuana called cannabidiol (CBD).
The FDA also approved a CBD-based liquid medication called Epidiolex ® for the treatment of two forms of severe childhood epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. It’s being delivered to patients in a reliable dosage form and through a reproducible route of delivery to ensure that patients derive the anticipated benefits. CBD does not have the rewarding properties of THC.
Medical Marijuana Laws and Prescription Opioid Use Outcomes
Researchers generally consider medications like these, which use purified chemicals derived from or based on those in the marijuana plant, to be more promising therapeutically than use of the whole marijuana plant or its crude extracts. Development of drugs from botanicals such as the marijuana plant poses numerous challenges. Botanicals may contain hundreds of unknown, active chemicals, and it can be difficult to develop a product with accurate and consistent doses of these chemicals. Use of marijuana as medicine also poses other problems such as the adverse health effects of smoking and THC-induced cognitive impairment. Nevertheless, a growing number of states have legalized dispensing of marijuana or its extracts to people with a range of medical conditions.
A new study underscores the need for additional research on the effect of medical marijuana laws on opioid overdose deaths and cautions against drawing a causal connection between the two. Early research suggested that there may be a relationship between the availability of medical marijuana and opioid analgesic overdose mortality. In particular, a NIDA-funded study published in 2014 found that from 1999 to 2010, states with medical cannabis laws experienced slower rates of increase in opioid analgesic overdose death rates compared to states without such laws. 78
The potential medicinal properties of marijuana and its components have been the subject of research and heated debate for decades. THC itself has proven medical benefits in particular formulations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved THC-based medications, dronabinol (Marinol ® ) and nabilone (Cesamet ® ), prescribed in pill form for the treatment of nausea in patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy and to stimulate appetite in patients with wasting syndrome due to AIDS.