Medical Marijuana

Written by MaryAnn DePietro | Published on December 5, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on December 5, 2013

What Is Medical Marijuana?

Marijuana, or cannabis, has played a role in medical treatment for thousands of years. Though its recreational use is still illegal in most of the United States, many states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.

The mind-altering ingredient in marijuana is called THC, which stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. The amount of THC in marijuana varies. It is common for marijuana to contain anywhere from one to seven percent THC.

When THC enters the body, it attaches to and stimulates cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The stimulation of these receptors affects the body in various ways and may reduce pain and increase appetite.

In states where it marijuana use is legal, a doctor must write a prescription for the drug.

What Does Medical Marijuana Treat?

People receiving cancer treatment and chemotherapy sometimes receive a medical marijuana prescription. It may also help people with medical conditions that cause muscle spasms, such as multiple sclerosis. Because marijuana may increase appetite, it may help people with conditions that cause anorexia, such as AIDS.

Researchers continue to study the benefits of marijuana for medical purposes. Marijuana may be effective in treating:

  • Pain: Because of its effect on the central nervous system, cannabis may reduce chronic pain in some people. According to the California Medical Association, cannabis seems to be most effective when treating chronic neuropathic pain. Neuropathic pain is pain from nerve injury or disease.
  • Nausea: Cannabis may reduce nausea and stimulate appetite in some people.
  • Muscle spasms: According to the Mayo Clinic, early studies show that cannabis may help reduce muscle spasms associated with certain conditions.

Medical marijuana is used to reduce symptoms, not to treat or cure diseases. Cannabis use does not change the prognosis of a certain disease. It can alleviate certain complaints and make someone feel better, which can improve quality of life.

How Is Medical Marijuana Administered?

A doctor will determine the specific dosage and frequency of medical marijuana use. Methods for ingesting cannabis include:

  • synthetic forms such as dronabinol, which is taken orally
  • smoking
  • baking it into food or putting it in other edible items

What Are the Risks of Medical Marijuana?

As with all types of drugs, there may be risks associated with cannabis use. One possible risk is dependency. The debate over whether cannabis is physically or psychologically addictive is ongoing. According to the National Cancer Institute, cannabis use has less potential for addiction than other types of illicit or prescription drugs. But addiction is still possible.

If dependency does occur, withdrawn symptoms can develop if the drug is stopped. Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • nausea

Marijuana smoke contains some of the same elements as tobacco smoke, raising concern for its effects on the lungs.

What Are the Side Effects of Medical Marijuana?

According to the National Cancer Institute, possible side effects of marijuana use include:

  • increased heart rate
  • low blood pressure
  • short-term reduced memory
  • short-term reduced attention span
  • decreased problem-solving skills

Other possible side effects of marijuana use are:

  • lowered blood sugar levels
  • drowsiness
  • increased bleeding
  • adverse interaction with other medications or herbs 


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