Medical marijuana is a controversial topic. Differing opinions among journalists, medical doctors, social activists, and legislators, have led to an overwhelming wealth of information in the media. Unfortunately, this means the people who stand to benefit most from the use of medical marijuana, those individuals who suffer from serious health conditions, are left to navigate the confusing new options without clear facts and evidence. In truth, numerous studies published in renowned, peer-reviewed medical journals such as Neurology, Rheumatology, Annals of Internal Medicine, the American Journal of Clinical Oncology, and the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology have all documented significant health benefits associated with the use of medicinal Cannabis across a wide range of ages, races, genders, and health conditions. The medicinal benefits of Cannabis are still being investigated and its scientifically proven indications continue to grow with the progression of research.
The medical use of cannabis can be found throughout history. Ancient Egyptian texts as far back as 2000 BCE note medicinal applications of cannabis. The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) from Ancient Egypt has a prescription for medical marijuana applied directly for inflammation. Cannabis was described in the oldest known Chinese pharmacopeia Shennong’s Materia Medica Classic in 100 AD. The Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo (c. 140-208) is credited with being the first recorded person to use cannabis as an anesthetic. Cannabis was a major component in religious and medicinal practices in ancient India. Surviving texts from ancient India confirm that cannabis’ psychoactive properties were recognized, and doctors used it for treating a variety of illnesses and ailments. These included insomnia, headaches, a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, and pain: cannabis was frequently used to relieve the pain of childbirth. The Ancient Greeks used cannabis to dress wounds on their horses. In humans, dried leaves of cannabis were used to treat nose bleeds, and cannabis seeds were used to expel tapeworms. The most frequently described use of cannabis by the Greeks was as an extract for the treatment of inflammation and pain resulting from obstruction of the ear.
Cannabis was used widely throughout the United States as a patent medicine during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was first listed in the United States Pharmacopia in 1850. Due to political pressures in the 1930’s government regulation was initiated with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 that restricted the use and sale of cannabis. Increasing government control was seen in 1942 when cannabis was removed from the United States Pharmacopia. Subsequently, legal penalties for possession were enacted in 1951with the Boggs Act and furthered in 1956 with the Narcotic Control Act. In 1970 the Federal Government initiated the prohibition of Marijuana with passage of the Controlled Substances Act. These legislative actions not only criminalized the use and possession of cannabis, they halted research efforts by restricting access to the plant.
A major change in federal regulation occurred in 2018 with the passage of the Farm Bill. This ground-breaking legislation legalized low-THC hemp and effectively descheduled hemp derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act. Although marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, individual states have been enacting laws to legalize medicinal use of marijuana since 1996. In 2012 Colorado and Washington became the first 2 states to legalize marijuana for recreational use. In November 2019 a turning point for the federal cannabis policy was achieved when the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or More Act, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee. The bill, if voted into law will remove marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances, allow states to set their own marijuana policy and require federal courts to expunge prior convictions for marijuana offenses. A 5% tax on marijuana products would also establish a trust fund for programs designed to help people disproportionately impacted by the “war on drugs,” including job training and treatment for substance abuse.
How to Talk to Your Doctor About Medical Marijuana
Let’s immediately address the elephant in the room: marijuana is a controversial substance which has been painted in an intensely negative light by decades of moral condemnation, punitive legislation, fear-mongering media coverage and public service announcements. For many patients, particularly those among the older generations, asking their doctor about medical marijuana just isn’t as easy as inquiring about the benefits of “normal” medications produced by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Speaking frankly, best-selling, name-brand prescription drugs are not scheduled substances: they simply don’t invoke the same attitudes and anxieties.
It’s perfectly understandable if broaching the subject of medical Cannabis initially makes you feel uncomfortable, just keep reminding yourself that your health and well-being is what matters most. Managing your symptoms and improving your quality of life absolutely takes precedence over your doctor’s personal feelings. If your doctor is scornful, judgmental, or dismissive of your questions about medical Cannabis on any basis which is not purely medical, consider getting a second opinion from a physician who will respect your concerns and focus not on bias and personal belief, but on helping you feel better. That is every doctor’s job, not chastising patients for being proactive about their health.
Medical Marijuana and Pain Relief
No matter which part, organ, or system of the body is affected, many medical conditions cause noticeable discomfort and/or pain. Chronic pain can have debilitating effects on your physical abilities, your hobbies and leisure activities, your job opportunities, your general mood and emotional state, and your ability to perform your activities of daily living. While traditional painkiller drugs such as morphine and oxycodone can be effective, they are also associated with a high risk of addiction and dependence, and can be dangerous or even fatal when administered in improper amounts. Cannabis offers similar palliative benefits, with less significant risk of substance abuse and consequent health issues. Marijuana works in a different system of our brains than opioid medications. It does not interact with the respiratory center in our brain like opiate medications and thus cannot suppress breathing. There is no risk of overdose with medical marijuana.
The scientific basis for marijuana’s painkilling ability lies in the way the active ingredients, called Cannabinoids, affect the brain. Cannabis contains at least 80 different cannabinoids, notably delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC — which activate the body’s Cannabinoid receptors. These receptors are found in brain and throughout most body organs.
THC, Nausea, and Appetite
We are taught from childhood that food powers the human engine. While obesity and the fast food industry have become prominent media topics during recent years, the dangers of under-eating are just as alarming. Persistent, long-term caloric deficiencies can lead to serious health problems such as decreased bone density, impaired circulatory function, vitamin deficiencies, and even early death caused by heart failure.
Some patients experience chronic nausea or loss of appetite related to chemotherapy treatments, while others are impacted by conditions such as anorexia, depression, HIV/AIDS, or Crohn’s Disease. If you struggle to maintain a healthy appetite due to a medical issue, Cannabis may be able to help you eat and get the nutrition your body needs.
It’s a common joke that marijuana causes “the munchies.” In fact, Cannabis does increase eating and weight gain in underweight individuals. Also, oddly enough, it does not appear to increase weight gain in normal to overweight users.
Treating Anxiety and Mood Disorders with Cannabis
Emotional pain can be just as devastating and dangerous to patients as physical pain. Conditions like anxiety, depression, PTSD, and chronic insomnia can lead to poor mood, less than stellar performance at work, strained interpersonal relationships, and even thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Current medications for these emotional disorders work to varying degrees, and have various side effects that may or may not make them helpful. Medicinal marijuana offers many patients with mood disorders an effective alternative. PTSD and anxiety are the only psychiatric conditions that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has approved as indications for medicinal marijuana. Many individuals with concurrent mood and anxiety disorders report improvement of those conditions with medicinal marijuana treatment.
Additionally, medical Cannabis can be safely and effectively used in conjunction with most current psychiatric medications. It doesn’t have to be viewed as an “either or” situation. In fact, in many instances the combination of Cannabis with other medications is the most effective treatment route.
If you or one of your loved ones is struggling with the symptoms of a serious health condition, prescription Cannabis may offer lasting relief with few to no negative side effects.