Despite the fact that the US Drug Enforcement Agency categorises marijuana as a schedule I drug, one that has no accepted medical use, a majority of Americans have thought medical pot should be legal since the late 1990s — and a majority now support recreational legalisation as well.
Even the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse lists medical uses for cannabis.
But even though researchers have identified some fascinating potential benefits of medical marijuana so far, it’s something that’s still hard to study, making conclusive results tough to come by. The schedule I classification means it’s hard for researchers to get their hands on pot grown to the exacting standards that are necessary for medical research, even in states where it’s legal. Plus, no researcher can even try to make an FDA-approved cannabis product while it has that DEA classification, which removes some motivation to study the plant.
More research would identify health benefits more clearly and would also help clarify potential dangers — like with any psychoactive substance, there are risks associated with abuse, including dependency and emotional issues. And many doctors want to understand marijuana’s effects better before deciding whether to recommend it or not.
With that caveat about research in mind, here are 21 of the medical benefits — or potential benefits — of marijuana.
There's a fair amount of evidence that marijuana does no harm to the lungs, unless you also smoke tobacco, and one study published in Journal of the American Medical Association found that marijuana not only doesn't impair lung function, it may even increase lung capacity.
Researchers looking for risk factors of heart disease tested the lung function of 5,115 young adults over the course of 20 years. Tobacco smokers lost lung function over time, but pot users actually showed an increase in lung capacity.
It's possible that the increased lung capacity may be due to taking a deep breaths while inhaling the drug and not from a therapeutic chemical in the drug.
Those smokers only toked up a few times a month, but a more recent survey of people who smoked pot daily for up to 20 years found no evidence that smoking pot harmed their lungs.
Marijuana use can prevent epileptic seizures in rats, a 2003 study showed.
Robert J. DeLorenzo, of Virginia Commonwealth University, gave marijuana extract and synthetic marijuana to epileptic rats. The drugs rid the rats of the seizures for about 10 hours. Cannabinoids like the active ingredients in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC), control seizures by binding to the brain cells responsible for controlling excitability and regulating relaxation.
The findings were published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
During the research for his documentary 'Weed,' Sanjay Gupta interviewed the Figi family, who treats their 5-year-old daughter using a medical marijuana strain high in cannabidiol and low in THC.
There are at least two major active chemicals in marijuana that researchers think have medicinal applications (there are up to 79 known active compounds). Those two are cannabidiol (CBD) -- which seems to impact the brain mostly without a high -- and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- which has pain relieving (and other) properties.
The Figi family's daughter, Charlotte, has Dravet Syndrome, which causes seizures and severe developmental delays.
According to the film, the drug has decreased her seizures from 300 a week to just one every seven days. Forty other children in the state are using the same strain of marijuana (which is high in CBD and low in THC) to treat their seizures -- and it seems to be working.
The doctors who recommended this treatment say that the cannabidiol in the plant interacts with the brain cells to quiet the excessive activity in the brain that causes these seizures.
As Gutpa notes, a Florida hospital that specialises in the disorder, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Drug Enforcement agency don't endorse marijuana as a treatment for Dravet or other seizure disorders.
The 2006 study, published in the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics, found that THC, the active chemical in marijuana, slows the formation of amyloid plaques by blocking the enzyme in the brain that makes them. These plaques seem to be what kill brain cells and potentially cause Alzheimer's.
A synthetic mixture of CBD and THC seem to preserve memory in a mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. Another study suggested that in population-based studies, a THC-based prescription drug called dronabinol was able to reduce behavioural disturbances in dementia patients.
Marijuana may ease painful symptoms of multiple sclerosis, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in May suggests.
Jody Corey-Bloom studied 30 multiple sclerosis patients with painful contractions in their muscles. These patients didn't respond to other treatments, but after smoking marijuana for a few days they reported that they were in less pain.
The THC in the pot binds to receptors in the nerves and muscles to relieve pain. Other studies suggest that the chemical also helps control the muscle spasms.
Other types of muscle spasms respond to marijuana as well. Gupta also found a teenager named Chaz who was using medical marijuana to treat diaphragm spasms that were untreatable by other, prescribed and very strong, medications.
His condition is called myoclonus diaphragmatic flutter (also known as Leeuwenhoek's Disease) and causes non stop spasming in the abdominal muscles which are not only painful, but interfere with breathing and speaking.
Smoking marijuana was able to calm the attacks almost immediately, at least it seemed to in this patient.
Treatment for hepatitis C infection is harsh -- negative side effects include fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, loss of appetite, and depression -- and lasts for months. Many people aren't able to finish their treatment course because of the side effects.
But, pot to the rescue: A 2006 study in the European Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology found that 86% of patients using marijuana successfully completed their Hep C therapy, while only 29% of non-smokers completed their treatment, possibly because the marijuana helps lessens the treatments side effects.
Marijuana also seems to improve the treatment's effectiveness: 54% of hep C patients smoking marijuana got their viral levels low and kept them low, in comparison to only 8% of nonsmokers.
Marijuana alleviates pain, reduces inflammation, and promotes sleep, which may help relieve pain and discomfort for people with rheumatoid arthritis, researchers announced in 2011.
Medical marijuana is also being used to treat the autoimmune disease Systemic Lupus Ertyhematosus, which is when the body starts attacking itself for some unknown reason.
Both THC and CBD have anti-inflammatory properties, which may be how cannabis helps deal with symptoms of Lupus and arthritis. The rest of the positive impact of the marijuana is probably from the effects on pain and nausea.
Researchers from rheumatology units at several hospitals gave their patients Sativex, a cannabinoid-based pain-relieving medicine. After a two-week period, people on Sativex had a significant reduction in pain and improved sleep quality compared to placebo users.
A note of caution, though, a recent study in Arthritis Care & Research suggests there isn't enough evidence to back up the use of marijuana for these kinds of diseases, mostly because there aren't comprehensive studies on the side effects and little regulation of dosage and consistency in the chemical make up of medical marijuana.
Contrary to stoner stereotypes, marijuana usage has actually been shown to have some positive mental effects, particularly in terms of increasing creativity. Even though people's short-term memories tend to function worse when high, people get better at tests requiring them to come up with new ideas.
One study tested participants on their ability to come up with different words related to a concept, and found that using cannabis allowed people to come up with a greater range of related concepts, seeming 'to make the brain better at detecting those remote associations that lead to radically new ideas,' according to Wired.
Other researchers have found that some participants improve their 'verbal fluency,' their ability to come up with different words, while using marijuana.
Part of this increased creative ability may come from the release of dopamine in the brain, lessening inhibitions and allowing people to feel more relaxed, giving the brain the ability to perceive things differently.
Recent research from Israel shows that smoking marijuana significantly reduces pain and tremors and improves sleep for Parkinson's disease patients. Particularly impressive was the improved fine motor skills among patients.
Medical marijuana is legal in Israel for multiple conditions, and a lot of research into the medical uses of cannabis is done there, supported by the Israeli government.
The Colorado Department of Public Health recently awarded $US2 million to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS is one of the biggest proponents of marijuana research) to study marijuana's potential as part of treatment for people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Marijuana is approved to treat PTSD in some states already -- in New Mexico, PTSD is the number one reason for people to get a licence for medical marijuana.
Naturally occurring cannabinoids, similar to THC, help regulate the system that causes fear and anxiety in the body and brain.
But there are still questions about the safety of using marijuana while suffering from PTSD, which this study will hopefully help answer.
Research from the University of Nottingham shows that marijuana may help protect the brain from damage caused by stroke, by reducing the size of the area affected by the stroke -- at least in rats, mice, and monkeys.
This isn't the only research that has shown neuroprotective effects from cannabis. Some research shows that the plant may help protect the brain after other traumatic events, like concussions. (link here? actually since we go in depth on that one in the next slide, maybe flush out the stroke angle more here instead.)
There is some evidence that marijuana can help heal the brain after a concussion or other traumatic injury. A recent study in the journal Cerebral Cortex showed that in mice, marijuana lessened the bruising of the brain and helped with healing mechanisms after a traumatic injury.
Harvard professor emeritus of psychiatry and marijuana advocate Lester Grinspoon recently wrote an open letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, saying the NFL should stop testing players for marijuana, and that the league should start funding research into the plant's ability to protect the brain.
'Already, many doctors and researchers believe that marijuana has incredibly powerful neuroprotective properties, an understanding based on both laboratory and clinical data,' he writes.
Goodell recently said that he'd consider permitting athletes to use marijuana if medical research shows that it's an effective neuroprotective agent.
This is a complicated one, because it involves effects that can be both positive and negative. Marijuana disturbs sleep cycles by interrupting the later stages of REM sleep. In the long run, this could be a problem for frequent users.
However, for people suffering from serious nightmares, especially those associated with PTSD, this can be helpful. Nightmares and other dreams occur during those same stages of sleep. By interrupting REM sleep, many of those dreams may not occur. Research into using a synthetic cannabinoid, like THC, but not the same, showed a significant decrease in the number of nightmares in patients with PTSD.
Additionally, even if frequent use can be bad for sleep, marijuana may be a better sleep aid than some other substances that people use. Some of those, including medication and alcohol, may potentially have even worse effects on sleep, though more research is needed on the topic.
One of the most well-known medical uses of marijuana is for people going through chemotherapy.
Cancer patients being treated with chemo suffer from painful nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. This can cause additional health complications.
Marijuana can help reduce these side effects, alleviating pain, decreasing nausea, and stimulating the appetite. There are also multiple FDA-approved cannabinoid drugs that use THC, the main active chemical in marijuana, for the same purposes.
Marijuana is safer than alcohol. That's not to say it's completely risk free, but it's much less addictive and doesn't cause nearly as much physical damage.
Disorders like alcoholism involve disruptions in the endocannabinoid system. Because of that, some people think cannabis might help patients struggling with those disorders.
Research in Harm Reduction Journal shows that some people use marijuana as a less harmful substitute for alcohol, prescription drugs, and other illegal drugs. Some of the most common reasons for patients to make that substitution are the less adverse side effects from marijuana and the fact that it is less likely to cause withdrawal problems.
Some people do become psychologically dependent on marijuana, and this doesn't mean that it's a cure for substance abuse problems. But, from a harm-reduction standpoint, it can help.
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