Medical Marijuana 101 – Introduction to the Devils Lettuce

Medical Marijuana refers to the medicinal use of the Cannabis plant to treat a variety of different ailments.  The uses of cannabis to relieve certain conditions brought upon by disease or the result of surgery have not been widely scientifically tested, often due to government regulations, but there is evidence to support the fact that it is effective in certain medical cases.  Medical Marijuana can have certain beneficial effects and has been used to treat ongoing pain, muscle spasms and nausea.  There is also controversy among scientific organizations as to if the possible benefits of this substance outweigh its potential negative effects.


History of Medical Marijuana

cannabis harvesting in historyAs early as 2737 B.C., the Emperor Shen Neng of China was using marijuana based tea for the treatment of gout, malaria and poor memory. Word of the drug’s medical uses spread throughout Asia, the Middle East and even down the eastern coast of Africa. Come of the Hindu groups in India used marijuana for religious purposes and even stress relief.  Ancient physicians would prescribe marijuana for everything from pain relief to mental issue relief and even childbirth difficulties.  These ancient physicians also warned against the overuse of marijuana, believing that too much consumption caused impotence, blindness and permanent visual impairment.

The use of Marijuana for medical purposes in the Western culture began in the mid 19th century and was often an ingredient in various custom medicines peddled by traveling vendors.  By the early 20th century, the use of medical Marijuana had begun to diminish due to the advent of morphine based pain medicines and the later introduction of aspirin.

In 1914, medical marijuana and any use of the substance was defined as a crime as per the Harrison Narcotics Act.  This act used taxes placed upon certain types of drugs to raise their cost beyond a reasonable level, and criminally charged anyone who tried to buy or sell them without paying this tax.  In 1937, the Federal Government followed suit and passed the Marihuana Tax Act, which made non-medical use of marijuana illegal.

California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and since then dozens of states have followed their example.  Critics of this legalization of medical marijuana say that it has sparked an underground marijuana culture in states that have approved its medical use.  In Los Angeles County alone it is estimated that there are about 1,000 illegally operated marijuana shops in that city alone.  Although the Justice Department in 2009 instituted a policy will keep authorities from cracking down on those with legitimate medical marijuana prescriptions, any recreational use of this drug was still prohibited.

Currently, medical marijuana is legal in 25 of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Guam.  The laws regarding medical marijuana vary from state to state. For example, the amount of marijuana a person is allowed to possess can range from 1 ounce to 24 ounces. Each state also has a fee that must be paid prior to obtaining a medical marijuana license, which will allow someone to obtain marijuana for medical uses.  Most states require proof of residency for a person to qualify for a medical marijuana prescription, while other states accept registry ID cards from any state.


How Medical Marijuana Works

medical cannabis buds on table

Marijuana is actually a slang term for certain portions of the Cannabis plant, mainly the “buds,” which refers to the part of the female plants that produce large resin-secreting flowers that are trimmed down to round shapes.  The male plants produce smaller, circular buds, near the base of the leaves.  The male plants pollinate the females to initiate seed production, but the potent flowers that people consume come from the seedless female plants, which grow large cannabinoid rich buds that contain a large concentration of THC, which is the active ingredient in medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana, also called pot, weed, mary-jane, and a host of other nicknames, is made from the Cannabis plant, which is a flowering plant that can grow up to 16 feet high.  Although the leaves and stems of this plant can be used for medical purposes, the flower buds and extracts are the more potent part.  These areas of the plant can be eaten, smoked, chewed, used as an ingredient in baked goods or brewed in a tea.

There are over 400 different compounds contained within the marijuana plant, however, THC (tetrahydrocannbinol) is what causes the “high” effect when consumed.  The human body actually already produces a marijuana-like chemical that affects pain, inflammation, and many other processes.  Marijuana can sometimes help those natural chemicals become more effective.  Physically, medical marijuana acts as a muscle relaxer and anti-inflammatory.  Psychologically it acts as a stimulant for the brain.  This makes medical marijuana strains high in THC a good choice for patients who need relief for anxiety, but also need to remain alert and active.

When a person smokes marijuana, THC quickly passes from the lungs into the bloodstream. The blood carries the chemical to the brain and other organs throughout the body. The body absorbs THC more slowly when the person eats or drinks it. In that case, the user generally feels the effects after 30 minutes to 1 hour.  THC acts on specific brain cell receptors that ordinarily react to natural THC-like chemicals in the brain. These natural chemicals play a role in normal brain development and function.

The body of research surrounding the medicinal value of marijuana is extensive.  Much of it concerns THC, one of the cannabinoids in marijuana.  THC is what gives cannabis some of its medicinal properties, such as increased appetite and a feeling of well-being.  The cannabinoids contained in marijuana, like THC, bind to the brain’s receptors, producing various effects, some medicinal, such as reducing pain or anxiety, but also the feeling of being “high.”  Besides the possible d medical uses, research has shown that cannabinoids can slow the development of certain cancers.


Effects of Medical Marijuana

smoking marijuana joint

There have been many scientific, and non-scientific, studies over the years attempting to determine the uses and effectiveness of medical marijuana to treat certain conditions.  To some, medical marijuana is unacceptable, immoral or simply illegal.  However, to numerous people in the United States and around the world, medical marijuana represents an essential medicine that alleviates debilitating symptoms. Without it, these people believe that they wouldn’t be able to treat their medical conditions.

Medical marijuana has been shown to have a slew of potential beneficial effects for those suffering for a variety of ailments.  There is a moderate level of evidence that supports medical Marijuana as a method to relieve chronic pain or muscle spasms.  There are also some studies that indicate Marijuana can be used for reducing nausea during chemotherapy, improving appetite and helping a patient sleep.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there so far has not been sufficient, wide scale clinical trials that have shown the major benefits of the Cannibas plant to outweigh the possible negative effects.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires carefully conducted studies and clinical trials in hundreds to thousands of human subjects to determine the benefits, and risks, of a potential medication.  So far, these studies have not been conducted on the levels required to officially determine that they benefits of medical marijuana outweigh the possible negative effects in the vast majority of cases.

The THC contained in medical marijuana increases appetite and reduces nausea. The FDA-approved marijuana based medications are used mainly for these purposes. THC may also decrease pain, inflammation and muscle control problems in patients suffering for conditions that cause these symptoms.  CBD is a cannabinoid produced from marijuana that does not affect the mind or behavior.  It may be useful in reducing pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures, and possibly even treating mental illness and addictions.

Medical marijuana advocates proclaim the drugs’ ability to relieve nausea, increase appetite, quiet pain, soothe anxiety and even reduce epileptic seizures. However, because research on the drug is so highly restricted within labs, few studies have tested these medical claims.

Short-term use of marijuana can impair mental capacity and coordination, and in long-term studies, teens who smoke marijuana have lower IQs later on in life, as well as physical structural differences in their brains. Scientists debate whether this is an effect of the drug on the brain, or a result of chronic marijuana smokers seeking out less intellectual pursuits and more creative endeavors.  Marijuana smokers are also more likely to suffer from bronchitis, according to a 2014 New England Journal of Medicine review of marijuana’s health effects.

Recent animal studies of medical marijuana have shown that the plant’s extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of tumors.  Evidence from one scientific study suggests that purified extracts from the marijuana plant can slow the growth of cancer cells from one of the most serious types of brain tumors.  Research in mice showed that treatment with purified extracts of THC and CBD, when combined with radiation treatment, increased the cancer killing effects of the medical process.

Because the marijuana plant contains chemicals that may help treat a range of illnesses or symptoms, many people argue that it should be legal for medical purposes. In fact, a growing number of states have legalized marijuana for medical use.  Many state laws have been enacted to either regulate, or de-regulate, the use of medical Marijuana and the debate continues in the states that have not yet adopted such laws.


Conditions that Medical Marijuana is Used to Treat

One of the main uses of medical marijuana has been to relieve the negative symptoms that patients experience when undergoing chemotherapy as a treatment for cancer.  Many times the patient will experience extreme nausea and vomiting.  In a 2010 study by Harvard Medical School researchers suggested that the benefits of medical marijuana can also reduce the anxiety and depression that patients may experience from chemotherapy, and cancer in general.  Although they also found that higher doses of medical marijuana may increase anxiety and make a patient more anxious.

Another main use of medical marijuana has been to treat cases of glaucoma, a condition that increases pressure in a patient’s eyeballs and will damage the optic nerves to the point of causing vision loss.  Marijuana has been shown to decrease the pressure inside the eyes, according to the National Eye Institute, and when smoked it can regulate the eye’s pressure back to a normal level.  The effects of medical marijuana may slow the progression of this disease and thus prevent blindness in a patient.

A 2003 study showed that medical Marijuana can be used effectively to prevent epileptic seizures.  The Virginia Commonwealth University administered medical marijuana extract to epileptic rats and it prevented seizures in them for approximately 10 hours.  THC, the active ingredient in medical marijuana, can control seizures by binding to the receptors in the brain that are responsible for regulating relaxation and excitability in our cells.

One of the most controversial potential uses of medical marijuana is a claim that it may help prevent cancer from spreading, which was first reported by the California Pacific Medical Center in 2007.  This is accomplished by turning off the genes that cancer uses to replicate itself within the body.  Cancer cells make copies of themselves to help spread it throughout the body, and this study showed that cancer cells in a lab that were exposed to cannabidiol had a decreased amount of the gene produced for cancer to spread, resulting in less aggressive reproduction of it.  A more recent study in 2013 by St. George’s, University of London identified six different compounds in cannabis with anti-tumor properties including cannabidiol, cannabigerol and cannabigevarin.


Medical Marijuana Controversy

marijuana should be legal

The use of medical Marijuana and its effectiveness in treating modern diseases remains within many governments and scientific organizations.  The United States reached an important moment in 2013, when a Gallop poll indicated that for the first time a majority of citizens supported the legalization of marijuana, with 58% agreeing.  As of 2016, 25 states, the District of Columbia and Guam now allow for public medical marijuana and cannabis use.  However, some states only allow marijuana to be used to treat specific disorders.  That leaves patients who want the drug to relieve an unapproved condition without a legal method for acquiring it.

The psychological effects of medical marijuana, such as anxiety reduction, sedation, and euphoria can influence its potential therapeutic value.  Those effects are certainly not desirable for all patients for certain situations, but it may be beneficial for others.  This sometimes presents a difficulty for medical professionals in finding the right balance and amount of medical marijuana to administer to their patients.

At the federal level, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, and is considered to have a high potential for dependency with no concrete medical uses.  This technically still makes the sales and use of marijuana a federal offense.  However, in 2009, the Obama administration distributed a memo to federal prosecutors advising them to not prosecute people or organizations that distribute marijuana for medical purposes where it is allowed by state law.


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