Medicinal Marijuana: Beneficial or Dangerous?

With all the government fuss about legalizing marijuana for medical use, most people would be surprised to discover that cannabis was a part of the American pharmacopoeia until 1942. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), in 1937 the U.S. passed the first federal law against the plant, despite objections from the association.

It's troubling that government legislators thought (and still think) they knew more about patients' health than the AMA. The fact is they don't. Several health organizations and even government institutions have advocated for the use of medical marijuana, including the AMA, the Institute of Medicine, the Aids Action Council, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Public Health Association.

Even the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1988 ruled that marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known, although they did not act on this finding, which would have protected the rights of patients. (It's interesting to note that the U.S. federal government actually grows its own marijuana for medical research.)

Today, cannabis is available in many countries by prescription such as Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain. Over 13 states in the U.S. have legalized its medical use to treat a variety of diseases and conditions. However, in 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could prosecute medical marijuana patients, even in states where compassionate use laws exist. This has led to raids on a variety of centers that dispense marijuana and patient prosecutions.

Last week the Obama administration gave patients and healthcare providers a break when it announced its decision to limit prosecutions of patients who use medical marijuana, or health care providers who dispense it. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that his agents will only prosecute when both state and U.S. laws were violated.

What's the concern about medical marijuana?

A frustrating reality is that the concerns about marijuana aren't related to its medicinal use, but to its casual use. Some politicians and lawmakers believe that marijuana is a gateway drug to harder drugs such as cocaine or heroine. However, university studies and other health experts dispute this claim.

Another concern is that marijuana can cause mental impairment and addiction that result in significant social costs. Research on these effects is conflicting and inconclusive. Factors that influence potential side effects include the strength of the marijuana, how long the drug is used, how it's used (for example, smoking the flower or the leaves, or using it in combination with another drug), and an underlying medical condition.

One recent study suggested that multiple sclerosis patients who used medical marijuana exhibited slower cognitive abilities. However, this study focused on patients who used illegally-obtained marijuana, not medical grade cannabis. In some cases street marijuana is mixed with other chemicals, such as formaldehyde or cocaine, to increase its potency.

What health conditions can marijuana treat?

The AMA states that while there is still much to learn, the medical potential is indisputable for a variety of symptoms and conditions. Several other health organizations and studies validate their position. Medical marijuana can treat severe pain and persistent muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury and disease. It's also beneficial in treating some symptoms of cancer and HIV/AIDS, such as severe pain and nausea, pain in severe types of arthritis, epileptic seizures and glaucoma.

Is Medical Marijuana Addictive?

Again, most of the studies about marijuana addiction aren't based on medicinal use, but casual use. Still, the White House Drug Policy holds that "the desire for marijuana exerts a powerful pull on those who use it, and this desire, coupled with withdrawal symptoms, can make it hard for long-term smokers to stop using the drug."

A review of some state sites on medical marijuana indicates that dependency might become a problem and that treatment for patients should be made available. Common sense suggests that this is in keeping with the availability of support and treatment for people who take other prescription drugs that can be addictive such as sleeping pills and some pain relievers.

If medicinal cannabis is legally available to you, and you suffer from a chronic illness that might benefit from use, speak to your doctor about possible side effects-such as drowsiness, sleeplessness, short term memory loss, and appetite changes-and get as much literature on the drug and all treatment options before making the decision to light up.

Study References

Journal: Neurology 2008, Vol. 71 pp. 164-169

Study Date: 2008

Study Name: Multiple sclerosis and cannabis: A cognitive and psychiatric study


Author(s): Omar Ghaffar, MD, FRCP(C) and Anthony Feinstein, MPhil, PhD, FRCP(C)