Medical Marijuana: Parting the Smoke

The general topic of medical marijuana can appear to be nothing more than a smokescreen. Some people believe there are no medicinal benefits one can receive from it, while others believe it is their saving grace. Which one is correct? As we look at a couple pros and cons behind it, keep an open mind. We will be unable to discuss everything about marijuana because the in-depth detail is out of the scope for this paper. However, one should first know what medical marijuana is and what studies say before being able to make an informed decision whether they agree or disagree with there being any benefits. We will define what it is, how the government classifies it, and some pros and cons to its use.

What is Marijuana

Marijuana comes from the dried leaves of the Cannabis sativa plant which contains “more than 460 known chemicals” (Ladino, Hernández-Ronquillo, & Téllez-Zenteno, 2014). The chemicals produced from the plant are called cannabinoids. Each cannabinoid has different effects on the human body. In fact, cannabinoids are in small amounts produced naturally by the human body. These are referred to endogenous cannabinoids. In other words, they are produced from within the body and not from an outside source. The human body has two different cannabinoid receptors which are CB1 and CB2 (Kramer, 2015). The greatest concentration of these receptors is found in the hippocampus (responsible for regulating memory), cerebral cortex (cognition), cerebellum (motor coordination), basal ganglia (movement), hypothalamus (appetite), and the amygdala (emotions) (Bienenstock, 2016).

When you hear “medical marijuana,” people are talking about mostly one of two chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant. These two main chemicals are used for medicine. The first one is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or more commonly called THC. The second is cannabidiol and is more commonly called by its initials, CBD. The methods of using medical marijuana include smoking it, eating it, inhaling it through a vaporizer, topically by use of a cream, and liquid drops under the tongue.

Drug Scheduling

How does the government classify marijuana? The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has drug schedules which classify drugs, substances and certain chemicals that would be used in the making of the medication or substance. Drug schedules range from a Scheduled I to a Scheduled V. Each schedule judges, if you will, the abuse potential and the medications’ use or benefits. A Schedule V drug has low abuse potential and low risk of dependency. An example would be an antitussive (cough) medication. One could expect to take the medication without the body developing a dependency on it. Yet, on the opposite end, we find Schedule I drugs to have no current acceptable medical use, a high potential for abuse and for developing a dependency. We would find drugs like OxyContin and Fentanyl in the Schedule II category. These medications, as seen in news headlines in the past, carry a high potential for abuse. These medications can lead to severe psychological or physical dependency over time with their use.

Schedule I medications are listed as having no current medical benefit and high abuse potential. There is clear opposition for their use. Medical marijuana comes from chemicals found in the cannabis sativa plant. It comes to the medical world in a few different ways which include oils, creams, vaporized, and solids. While there are an increasing number of studies being done to show benefits, uses, and safety, marijuana (cannabis) remains a Schedule I substance. As with any medication, there must be sufficient evidence to prove the benefits and safety.

The Pros

In the article “Cannabis and Its Derivatives: Review of Medical Use”, a chart illustrates some uses and success rate. In one study, Tourette’s syndrome showed a 50-70% remission rate. In another study, only having 1 participant, had a 100% remission rate. The use of medical marijuana when used for glaucoma found there was a significant reduction in intraocular pressures. Neuropathic pain patients saw an improvement with their pain. In a study of 50 patients with sensory neuropathic pain, there was a 34% reduction in pain (Leung, 2011). In “Medical Marijuana for Cancer” we see a study for HIV-related lack of appetite and weight loss. We see that shows 97% reported improved appetite. There was an increased caloric intake and improvement of weight (Kramer, 2015). A study by Ladino, Hernández-Ronquillo, & Téllez-Zenteno, (2014) shows the effects of marijuana on epilepsy and show a 68% improvement. This was not only with frequency but with severity as well. Regarding epilepsy, Wang, Collet, Shapiro, and Ware (2008) state “it is becoming clear that cannabinoids have considerable therapeutic potential”. While this is not a comprehensive list, studies suggest that the use of marijuana has improved the symptoms in the following conditions: anxiety, cancer-related nausea and vomiting, chronic pain, depression, epilepsy, glaucoma, neuropathic pain, poor appetite and weight loss, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), spasticity in multiple sclerosis, and Tourette’s syndrome.

The Cons

Unfortunately, of the existing studies and literature available, there is no systematic review for the efficacy of medical marijuana for many of the conditions in which it is proposed to treat (Yarnell, 2015). There is still risk involved with its use. As with tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke also has health risk. “Cannabis contains a similar array of detrimental and carcinogenic compounds (Leung, 2011). Statistics show 1 out of every 10 people that use medical marijuana will develop a dependency or abuse the drug (Leung, 2011). Considering this, from 2012 to 2016, there was a 3% increase in motor vehicle accidents related to the use of medical marijuana. So, while there are positives about the drug, there are also negatives. Not every patient that uses it will abuse it. For those that do abuse it, they will not only be putting their lives in danger but also the public should they attempt to drive.

Conclusion

As with any medication, just because the medication can be used to treat a disease, condition, or illness, does not mean it will work successfully to do so in every case. If the medication did not work for your illness, injury, or condition, should we then base the efficacy on just one person and say it does not work for others with the same problem? Of course not. While some argue there are people who abuse medical marijuana, there are also people who do not. These people depend on taking it to control their condition. Many times, these people have tried all the “traditional” and even some alternative medications in hopes of seeking relief. As we all know by news headlines, opioids are becoming highly abused. However, what is needed is a better governing system, better tracking methods, reviews, and punish those who do so. We should not punish those who obey the laws and strip them of the only thing that works. In addition, there is a need for more detailed studies. With what studies there currently are, one can say there is evidence that medical marijuana is not just a smokescreen. There are medicinal benefits one can gain from its use.