Almost every consumer of health services today has heard that medical marijuana is in clinical use. Indeed, 28 states and The District of Columbia now have laws on the books that allow for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Incredibly, these states are still in violation of federal law but, for now, the United States government has decided to look away. The federal government’s policy of not prosecuting states that allow for medical marijuana might cause one to think that there must be some benefit in the use of this controversial agent. But first, some history.

Marijuana, or cannabis (as it is commonly called), has been used as a medicine for a variety of purposes for thousands of years. Ancient cultures in China, Egypt, Greece and certain Arab populations used cannabis for everything from wound healing to hemorrhoids to insomnia and anxiety. It is actually one of the 50 essential plants used in traditional Chinese medicine. Until the advent of aspirin and the wider use of both naturally occurring and synthetically made narcotics (opiates and opioids), marijuana enjoyed some degree of notoriety in the medical community. It wasn’t until its criminalization in the U.S. in the 20th century that marijuana use for medical and recreational purposes went underground. However, with increasing opiate addiction and a growing populace of older and sicker people, scientists have turned in recent decades to the potential benefits of this most interesting of plants.

The science of marijuana as medicine can be plainly put. Our bodies contain billions of natural receptors that are stimulated by the many chemicals in marijuana that cause various beneficial and not-so-beneficial effects. Two of these chemicals, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the mind-altering component) and cannabinol (CBD, the major therapeutic part) are what we are concerned with most in discussing pot as medicine. Scientists have been able to alter the ratio of these chemicals in medical marijuana, whether in pill, vapor, tincture, edible or dermal patch formulations, to best affect a number of medical conditions. So far, medical marijuana shows promise in:

  • Reducing eye pressure from glaucoma.
  • Improving appetite in cancer patients and patients with AIDS.
  • Relieving chronic pain from a variety of causes, such as from arthritis (both osteo and rheumatoid) and neuropathy.
  • Limb spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and other neurologic diseases.
  • Children with uncontrolled seizures.
  • Reducing nausea and vomiting in patients receiving chemotherapy.
  • Helping people with insomnia to sleep better.

There are other applications that are actively being studied. They include using marijuana in the treatment for cancer, diabetes, asthma, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Tourette’s syndrome, Crohn’s disease and many other illnesses. This truly is an exciting time in medical marijuana research. Bear in mind there are some side effects from the use of medical marijuana, but they are usually mild. Most often they are:

  • dizziness
  • feeling tired
  • hallucinations
  • drowsiness
  • vomiting

If you live in a state that has a medical marijuana program, I have the following suggestions:

  1. Do research on the web about your state’s medical marijuana program, or simply call your state’s Board of Health or Medicine.
  2. Always deal with a reputable and licensed physician and dispensary. Do research on the web or ask to see licenses or certificates from the state to verify compliance.
  3. Ask friends and relatives if they have experience with a certain provider of medical marijuana services.
  4. Ask your personal physician if he/she knows of a licensed marijuana practitioner. Ask if other patients have benefitted from such a regimen.
  5. Contact your local university medical center (if there is one in your community) to see if they have a medical marijuana program or do cannabis research.
  6. Always remember that you should not carry marijuana across state lines—even if for medicinal purposes and even if it is legal in both states. (This is because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.) 

Medical marijuana may not be for everyone. It is not a cure all. Nor is it, I feel, snake oil. It still, unfortunately, carries the stigma that “pot” has had for decades, even centuries. However, if you have tried other therapies for your medical issue and they have failed or you can’t tolerate the side effects, strongly consider trying this most fascinating and potentially beneficial of plants. You might be pleasantly surprised.

For more with Dr. Sherer, click here for his podcast and video interviews, or purchase his memoir, The House of Black and White: My Life with and Search for Louise Johnson Morris.

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