Medical Marijuana

The Facts About Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana is a hot topic these days. In my state of Michigan, voters approved a bill making medical marijuana legal; well legal from the state's standpoint at least. Since that time, my telephone has been ringing off the hook asking how to get a prescription for medical marijuana.

The active substance in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Regardless of what you think about the morality or legality of medical marijuana, studies have shown THC can relieve nausea; can treat the pain of peripheral neuropathy; and can be an effective appetite stimulant in patients with wasting.

That being said, medical marijuana is not without risk and is not the first line treatment for any of these symptoms. Let's take a look at medical marijuana and review the pros and cons.

Uses of Medical Marijuana

Depending on who you talk to, one's impression of marijuana ranges from being a dangerous drug much like heroin or cocaine or is a drug with many medical benefits. For the moment, forget any preconceived notions you may have about the ills of medical marijuana. Let's look at what medical marijuana supporters feel are the benefits of smoking marijuana.
  • Nausea - Smoked marijuana has shown to be beneficial in the relief of nausea due to cancer chemotherapy or HIV medications when prescription anti-nausea medications fail. Effective prescription medicines for nausea relief include:
    • Compazine (prochloroperazine)
    • Phenergan (promethazine)
    • Vistaril (hydroxyzine)
    • Zofran (ondansetron)
  • Appetite Stimulant - For patients experiencing poor appetite and unintended weight loss, marijuana has been known to increase appetite and in turn help with weight gain. No studies have been published regarding the benefit of smoked marijuana in the treatment of AIDS wasting however. Prescription appetite stimulants and weight gain medications include:
    • Marinol (dronobinol) - the prescription form of THC
    • Megace (megestrol acetate)
    • Oxandrin (oxandrolone)
  • Peripheral Neuropathy - A study released in February 2007 offered evidence that smoked marijuana can relieve the pain of peripheral neuropathy caused by certain HIV medications. Prescription medications that are meant to treat peripheral neuropathy include:
    • Neurontin (gabapentin)
    • Lyrica (pregabalin)
    • Elavil (amitriptyline)
  • Glaucoma - Medical marijuana has been used for quite some time to lower interocular pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients. While it does lower the pressure, there is no scientific proof that it is more effective than conventional prescription medications. Some of these medications include:
    • Timoptic Eye Drops (timolol)
    • Ocupress (carteolol)

The Risks of Smoked Marijuana

While researching this article, I found it difficult to find information that was not biased one way or another; arguing for or against medical marijuana. But I did find information related to known risks of smoked marijuana. These risks are what makes smoking medical marijuana hard to justify in the minds of the medical and drug enforcement community.
  • Lung Damage - Like any substance inhaled into the lungs, there is a risk of damage to lung tissues and structures. Smoked marijuana is known to damage the protective lining of the bronchial passages, leaving the lungs susceptible to damaging microorganisms and substances that are inhaled. It also reduces the ability of immune cells to protect the lungs against inhaled bacteria, fungi, or parasites. People with immune systems that are already weakened by HIV may increase their risk of serious pulmonary infections by smoking marijuana.
  • Central Nervous System Effects - As we all know, the THC in marijuana is the substance that causes central nervous system (the brain) symptoms ("feeling high") including euphoria, impaired thinking and memory, problems concentrating, lack of balance and coordination, and difficulties with decision-making. Some believe that the "high" that recreational marijuana users seek is a risk for those people using medical marijuana.
  • Cancer Risk - There is evidence that regular use of smoked marijuana can increase the risk of testicular cancer in men. A study in the journal Cancer indicates that smoking marijuana is associated with a 70% increase in testicular cancer risk.
  • Addiction / Dependence - For decades, marijuana opposition used the argument that smoking marijuana can be addicting and can also be a "gateway" drug that leads to the use of more severe drugs like cocaine or heroin. Depending who you talk to, many will say the thought of marijuana addiction is nonsense. Others say it is a huge problem that needs to be dealt with. Some studies that say about 9% to 10% of people who use marijuana regularly will develop a dependence meaning they will have some degree of withdrawal symptoms if they stop using abruptly. Whether marijuana can cause addiction (the continuous use of a substance despite known harm) remains a debate.

The Medical Marijuana Debate

As more states pass medical marijuana laws, the medical marijuana debate will no doubt intensify. Despite laws legalizing medical marijuana, serious questions surround its use.
  • Despite state laws, the federal government considers marijuana illegal in all states. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) continues to shut down medical marijuana suppliers, especially in California and continue to investigate doctors who prescribe.
  • Many doctors are reluctant to recommend medical marijuana and prescribe it even in legalized states. Because a doctor's narcotics license is issued by the Federal Government, most physicians will not prescribe marijuana for fear of jeopardizing their narcotics license.

If you believe medical marijuana is for you, consider the known risks and the problems obtaining marijuana before talking with your doctor. And remember, medical marijuana should never be used or as an excuse for recreational marijuana use.

Sources:

Adams, J.; "Medical Marijuana: What Does Science Say?"; LA Times; 18 Aug 2007.

Bushman, M.; "The Health Risks and Benefits of Using Marijuana: Does One Outweigh the Other?"; Associated Content; 19 Feb 2007.

Riddell, J.; "Medical Marijuana Policy for the University of Michigan HATP"; 13 Feb 2008.

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