How Medical Marijuana Works

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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How it works

Medical marijuana is the prescription of cannabis prescribed by a doctor to alleviate pain or to help improve a medical condition. It is most frequently given to patients in the form of a pill, but there are alternatives such as inhaling or smoking it. Marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times for the benefit of easing pain but has now been adapted for other uses. People believe that it is beneficial because it aids in mental health, eases chronic pain, and alleviates symptoms of disease, and others think it is harmful because it has negative effects on personality, negative effects on the brain, and negative effects on the heart; however, there is common ground to prevent a harsh argument. The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes began in ancient times. Chinese Emperor Fu Hsi was the first accredited for using marijuana for medicinal reasons in 2900 BC. Another major leader in support of cannabis was Emperor Shen Neng. Both of these men and their followers smoked the plant to relieve pain. These ideas spread from China to the Western world; in the western world, the plant was modified and used in many ways. Cannabis was mixed into drinks as medicine, smoked to relieve pain, and even used in some ointments.

In the medical field today, it has been adapted into pills, oral sprays, more advanced ointments, and is still smoked for medical purposes. Medical marijuana is used for many different treatments. The first treatment is for muscular dystrophy. The prescription of marijuana is used as an anti-inflammatory, to prevent cell death, and to help bring the mitochondria’s function back into the muscle. Another treatment is for chronic pain. Medical marijuana is commonly used in different ways for chronic pain; doctors can prescribe it by oral spray, edible forms, or by inhaling it. It not only reduces symptoms, but it is more affordable and less addictive than opioid painkillers. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is commonly treated with marijuana as well. There is no prescribed medicine to cure PTSD; this is why so many veterans have turned to medicinal marijuana. It helps calm the mind and even relieves some symptoms of depression. The drug is used to relax patients and has a calming effect on the nerves and brain. Medical marijuana can also be used to treat Glaucoma.

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Glaucoma is a gradual loss of vision that is fairly common in the United States. Marijuana can help regain vision because THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, lowers the intraocular pressure which causes vision loss. According to Rae Lland, THC is “”a chemical compound found in the cannabis plant that interacts with receptors in the brain and body to create various effects”” (1). It can help increase vision for up to four hours at a time. Another use of marijuana for medicinal purpose is seizures. Many patients have had their seizures significantly decrease or even stop. The THC is less effective in this case and the CBD, which is cannabidiol, causes the seizures to lessen in severity. Lastly, marijuana is used to help cancer patients. It helps decrease many of their symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, especially after chemotherapy. Regulations for marijuana have been in place in the United States since 1906, but one of the first laws on marijuana for medicinal practices was enacted by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The implication of this law was created because the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics noticed a significant increase in the number of people using marijuana. This law created an excise tax on marijuana sold by physicians, retail pharmacists, and on medical marijuana farming and processing.

Cannabis at the federal level was also prohibited by this act. However, this act did not last because it was ruled to be unconstitutional; it was replaced by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This act made all uses of marijuana, both recreational and medical, prohibited at the federal level. This act also helped create the U.S. Drug Policy, which was devised to regulate the making, processing, distribution, and use of not only marijuana but also many different drugs. The federal government can make these laws, however as stated by the tenth amendment of the constitution, the states only have to use these as a recommendation. The federal government can pull funding for certain things, but states are not required to follow the federal laws. The newest law was set into place in 2014 regarding marijuana for medicinal reasons. The Rohrabacher–Farr amendment prohibits the Justice Department from interfering with state laws regarding medical marijuana. This bill has to be renewed annually as it is a controversial issue. It is controversial because it is illegal in twenty-one states and there are not many controlled tests to understand its full benefits and harms. The amendment makes sure that the federal government does not interfere with the state laws and allows each state to create their own plans in terms of marijuana for medicinal use.

There are many benefits of medical marijuana. The first benefit is that it can aid in mental health. Many people suffer from depression, traumatic situations, and social anxiety that other medicines are unable to treat. Medical marijuana has been proven to aid in many of these conditions. Most depression is caused by intense amounts of stress which causes the brain to stop assembling endocannabinoids. Ann Pietrangelo, an author with multiple sclerosis, states, “”Three-hundred fifty million people suffer from depression”” (1). The loss of production of endocannabinoids is common in most people with depression; medicinal use of marijuana can be used to restore the production and aid in stopping depression and some of its symptoms. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is another illness that marijuana can help ease the symptoms of. PTSD is often associated with people in the military, as the term was coined after World War II, but anyone can be affected that has gone through a trauma. The symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks to the trauma, wanting to avoid certain locations, sudden emotional changes, and rash actions that can be both physical or emotional. People with PTSD often cease production of endocannabinoids which causes flashbacks to trauma; marijuana can relieve the horrific memories by helping restore production of these endocannabinoids. Steve Fox, the director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project, writes, “”Evidence supports the potential of medical marijuana as a treatment for PTSD and its safety as a therapeutically active substance”” (1). Another mental disorder that medical marijuana can help is social anxiety. Marijuana also has CBD or cannabidiol in it; this is the chemical compound that does not produce a “”high”” feeling. CBD can be extracted from the plant and produce a pill to relieve the feeling of anxiety and panic in people with social anxiety disorder, paranoia, and psychosis.

Another major benefit for the medicinal use of marijuana is for the easing of chronic pain; many people have chronic nerve and back pain. Some people go through treatments such as acupuncture, addictive pain medicine, and expensive physical therapy and medical procedures; however, these treatments often do not work. Marijuana is known to help relax muscles, relieve pain, and is often the most effective treatment for chronic pain. Jana Christian, who suffers from chronic pain herself, writes, “”Without marijuana, such chronic pain suffers barely feel human, experiencing sleepiness, sorrow, suffering, and the risk of suicide”” (1). Marijuana reduces nerve pain by relaxing the muscles and acting as an anti-inflammatory. It also acts as an intense pain reducer and the CBD and THC interact with the nervous system; the drug sends out signals through the body to relieve pain. Chronic back pain is also a severe problem medicinal marijuana can help reduce. Most back pain is caused by severe inflammation just like nerve pain. It is a safer anti-inflammatory than most drug prescriptions. It is proven to be just as effective as codeine, which is an opioid drug, but with no addictive side effects and is not proven to be a gateway drug. John P. Morgan who is both a physician and professor at the City University of New York’s medical school states, “”Nearly seventy million Americans who have tried marijuana have not progressed to harder drugs”” (1). Many patients only use their prescribed form of marijuana until their pain subsides, and then they quit with no withdrawals of the drug.

The last major benefit of medical marijuana is that it eases the symptoms of many diseases. First, it can prevent seizures. A seizure occurs when there is a problem with cells in the brain; it is typically uncontrolled and unexpected. The CBD can be extracted from marijuana and placed into a capsule. This chemical, unlike THC, will not produce a high and can help prevent seizures. CBD sends anticonvulsants to the neurotransmitters in the brain which ultimately can stop seizures from occurring. Many people have not benefited from traditional treatments like sedatives, other medicines, and anticonvulsants; however, in these patients, medical marijuana has been able to prevent seizures from occurring. Another disease marijuana can ease is muscular dystrophy. It causes the loss of skeletal muscle tissue and weakens the muscles. Marijuana can help relieve the pain immediately and acts as an anti-inflammatory to reduce painful swelling of the muscles. It can also reduce severe cramps many muscular dystrophy sufferers go through. Lastly, it can help with the painful effects of cancer. After experiencing chemotherapy and radiation, cancer patients can experience nausea, vomiting, and nerve pain.

The drug Marinol is a pill form of marijuana and it contains THC; it is used to alleviate the symptoms of cancer such as nausea and vomiting. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and Marinol also helps relieve pain, helps with weight loss, and helps with appetite.While there are benefits to medical marijuana, it also has many harmful effects on the mind and body. The first harmful effect caused by the medicinal use of marijuana is on personality. Many people who use marijuana experience feelings of paranoia and panic. Many people who already experience severe anxiety and then smoke or take the medicinal marijuana often experience extreme panic attacks. A panic attack is typically derived from a panic disorder, which is a mental state that makes people feel engulfed in panic, doom, and rapid feelings of anxiety. Many first-time users also make themselves anxious because they do not know what effect the drug will have on them; as a result, they add more stress and panic to the situation, so when they reach their “”high”” feeling, they experience severe paranoia and panic. Panic attacks are also induced when an unknown sensation occurs. While the person may not feel panic over trying the new drug, the body can naturally react to the drug this way.

Another negative psychological effect is behavioral issues. Users can develop lack of personality, problem-solving, and other basic functions; this may also come with mood swings and changes in behavior. Students may have a decrease in focus, proper speech, and sudden low grades. Other users of marijuana often experience sudden changes in personality like hostility, anger, and rebellion. Patrick Condron, a certified addictions counselor, states, “”Marijuana use is associated with altered brain development, a decline in cognitive function and poor academic performance”” (1). Behavioral issues can occur in anyone who uses the drug, but developmental issues of the brain are even more harmful to teens and young adults as they are still growing and changing. Another negative side effect that can occur in schizophrenia; it is a disorder that can develop at any stage in life. People who have this disorder think people are out to hurt them, hear voices in their heads, and think people can read their minds. Their thoughts can become so jumbled that their speech is incomprehensible. The National Institute of Mental Health states, “”Approximately 1 percent of the population develops schizophrenia during their lifetime? more than 2 million Americans suffer from the illness in a given year”” (1). The chemicals in marijuana are proven to cause schizophrenia; they affect the brain’s chemistry and development. The psychotic hallucinations are often caused by tetrahydrocannabinol which can have long-term effects on the brain. James Chapman, the Daily Mail political editor, states, “”THC affects chemicals in the brain that transmit information from one nerve cell to another”” (1). When the signals get disrupted, the chemicals can cause major disorders such as schizophrenia. The more frequent the use of the drug, the more likely one is to develop a disorder; however, even small doses can affect memory loss, behavior, and personality.

Another harmful effect marijuana has is on the brain. The chemicals THC and CBD both can harm the development and basic functions of the brain. The first side effect caused by the intake of marijuana is memory loss. The THC alters the “”composition and function”” of the memory cell. (Whiteman 1). Marijuana effects short-term memory and can damage a developing brain. Another side effect is hallucinations, which typically occur in large doses. People tend to have a slower perception of time when smoking or taking a prescribed dosage of marijuana; the receptors in the brain cause vision to slow and can even damage brain cells. When this occurs, people often see things that are not there and have an altered perception of what is really in front of them. Vision is not the only thing that slows when taking any dosage of marijuana. Reactions of movement, time, and thought are also slowed. The ability to think quickly and react quickly is reduced, just like when consuming alcohol. The larger the dosage, the more likely to be impaired. Tolerance and impairment can be based on how long the drug has been used and how much one has taken. Perception of time is also slowed to many individuals who take the drug; many users experience five minutes feeling like ten minutes and others feeling like hours have elapsed in only minutes. It is best not to drive, work, or operate any machine or object that can hurt someone. Another mental effect of marijuana is a decline of intelligence quotient or IQ. IQ typically lowers in adulthood with people who began using the substance as a teenager and adults who chronically abuse marijuana. People tend to develop concentration, creative, and thought issues as marijuana can kill and damage cells that are vital to the brain’s function. The last major issue of the brain is an increased risk of stroke; it occurs when the brain cannot get enough oxygen and brain cells begin to die. Robert Preidt, an editor and writer for HealthDay writes, “”The researchers concluded that marijuana use was independently associated with a 26 percent increased risk of stroke and a 10 percent increased risk of heart failure”” (1). Marijuana increases blood pressure; this factor can contribute and increase the risk of a stroke.

Marijuana can also have negative effects on the heart. The first health risk is the increase in heart rate. This increase in heart rate is what triggers all of the following side effects like excessive bleeding, low blood sugar, low blood pressure, and the deadliest, a heart attack. When the heart beats too fast it produces too much blood and can cause unwarranted bleeding. Another heart condition that can be caused by marijuana is low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. Keeping up with how much marijuana is consumed is extremely important to avoid low blood sugar. The cannabinoid to dosage ratio is extremely important in keeping the blood sugar from entering dangerously low levels. It is also important to eat before consuming to help keep these levels up. A very dangerous side effect is blood pressure spikes. When marijuana is first consumed, blood pressure can rise to a dangerously high level then it drops to an extremely low level. Different bodies can respond in different ways, so while some blood pressure may spike, others may stay elevated or low. Both of these conditions can be dangerous to the heart and can trigger dangerous heart diseases. All of the prior conditions can lead up to one deadly episode: a heart attack. Excessive bleeding and high blood pressure are two leading causes of heart attacks. First time users of marijuana are more likely to experience spikes in blood pressure and increased heart rate. Amy Malick, the managing editor of ABC News writes, “”Marijuana could also trigger a heart attack by disrupting the cholesterol plaques that line the blood vessels of people with artery disease. If pieces of plaque break off they can clog the vessels that carry oxygen to the heart and ultimately cause a heart attack”” (1). She explains just how deadly smoking Marijuana can be to the heart. The addictive substance causes veins to clog, which ultimately leads to cardiac arrest. All of the factors combined when smoking illegal or prescribed doses of marijuana can cause severe damage to the body’s most vital organ.

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Although there are both pros and cons to medical marijuana, there is some common ground to mediate the usage. The first solution is to only use marijuana as a last resort medicine. A last resort medicine is used when other suggested treatments do not work; for instance, someone with chronic back pain can try acupuncture and physical therapy. However, if these procedures do not work, medical marijuana can be used to treat it so the patient will not have to undergo surgery. Another example is for mental health patients such as someone with depression. They can try counseling and certain medications for depression, but depression medicine can come with many side effects. If the patient cannot handle the medicine they are prescribed, medical marijuana may help relax their mind and ease their depression. Another mediation for medical marijuana is to only allow it to be prescribed in pill form. One of the biggest controversies about the medicinal use of marijuana is allowing it to be smoked. Many people are concerned with the lung damage and harmful effects of smoking the plant. The only FDA approved forms of marijuana are marinol, dronabinol, and cesamet. These are cannabinoid based drugs that give the same benefits as smoking the plant but without the harmful side effects of smoking it. The FDA’s job is to make sure that food and drugs are safe for public use; so, doctors know that when they prescribe these drugs they are safe for their patients use. Many institutions are in support of the use of medicinal marijuana but not by inhaling it. The harmful effects outweigh the benefits. The use of FDA regulated pills allows doctors to safely prescribe a marijuana supplement and allows the patients to live a healthy, safe life.

The last solution is to allow all forms of marijuana for medicinal purposes under strict doctor supervision. A widespread fear of allowing marijuana to be used medicinally is the misuse recreationally. Many people are apprehensive about legalizing all forms because smoking the plant is illegal in forty-one states. If the acceptance of all forms is allowed, patients will have to schedule regular appointments every two to three weeks with their doctor to make sure there is no misuse. Before the drug is given, potential candidates must have background checks for drug abuse or addiction problems and must not have any drugs or substances in their system when marijuana is given to them. Doctors should only prescribe small dosages, and the patient must come back in the two to three-week period to see if any more marijuana is necessary for their pain or illness. Medical Marijuana has both benefits and harms. There are many supporters and states who have legalized marijuana but also people who wish for it to be illegal. The supporters believe that its benefits of curing diseases, being supplemental medicine, and helping mental health and PTSD outweigh the negative side effects. However, some people believe the cons of negative effects on personality, the brain, and the heart outweigh any potential benefits it could have. There can be common ground like allowing it as a last resort medicine, only prescribing the FDA approved pill, and allowing all forms but under strict doctor care.

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How Medical Marijuana Works. (2020, Feb 07). Retrieved from