States have debated whether to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. This sample health essay explores the benefits and hazards of medical marijuana.
Introduction to medical marijuana
The benefits and risks of medical marijuana, or cannabis, have long been debated around the world, and especially in the United States, and with the recent rise of legalization for marijuana in many states, as well as recreational legalization in Colorado and Washington, scientists and the public are researching its effects on the human body and mind. Medical marijuana use dates back to 2327 B.C., according to Zimmermann, where it was used by Shen Neng, Emperor of China to treat his rheumatism, malaria, poor memory, and gout.
The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act created high taxes on the medicine in response to “rampant” morphine addiction in the United States, and so doctors and pharmacists stopped prescribing it in most cases (Zimmermann). Today, marijuana (medical or otherwise) is classified by the United States federal government as a Schedule 1 Drug and held to have no legitimate therapeutic uses and a high potential for abuse (Zimmermann). Since it is an illegal drug at the federal level, it’s difficult to do scientific studies on its medicinal effects (Zimmermann).
Forms of medical marijuana and medicinal values
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):
“Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States;” and medical marijuana is available to those with medical (“red”) licenses in as many as 26 states at present. It comes in different forms, some of which can be smoked or vaporized and then inhaled.
Medical marijuana is also available in pill form or “edibles,” marijuana-infused foods such as brownies, cookies, and other foods (Zimmermann). Marijuana extracts have become extremely popular over the past few years, particularly in recreational states such as Colorado and Washington (NIDA). Users smoke THC-rich resins which have been extracted from the marijuana plant, a practice called “dabbing” (NIDA).
Additional Reading: The American drug culture
The extracts come in three main forms; hash oil or honey oil (a honey-like liquid form); wax or budder (a soft, lip-balm like solid); and shatter (a hard, amber-colored solid) (NIDA). These extracts deliver larger amounts of THC and have been known to cause visits to the emergency room or risks due to the use of butane in their preparation (NIDA). Participants in a recent scientific study indicated that “dabs” delivered more THC, which might result in higher addiction to the substance than to flower marijuana (Green).
Marijuana’s active ingredients number 60, and these are called cannabinoids; they are a plant version of a chemical naturally present in the human body which helps human beings moderate pain (Zimmermann). Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main active cannabinoid in marijuana, and it targets the CB1 receptor found in the brain, nervous system, liver, kidneys, and lungs – it is activated in order to reduce the pain response (Zimmermann). Studies have found that medical marijuana can reduce neuropathic and nerve damage pain in HIV patients (one of many viable HIV treatments); opiates such as morphine are not nearly as effective (as cited in Zimmermann). In combination, opiates and medical marijuana are synergistic and extremely effective for pain control and increased appetite (Zimmermann).
Marijuana has been used to reduce the pain of MS symptoms such as spasms, burning, and numbness (Zimmermann). Marijuana has been effective in treatments for nausea in cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, for glaucoma, to stimulate appetite in HIV patients, for schizophrenia, and other common health problems (Zimmermann). Michael Bostwick, an addition psychiatrist, noted that one in ten users meet medical addiction criteria, but that medical marijuana should be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because it has been shown to positively affect cachexia, severe pain, nausea, seizures, and frequent muscle spasms (as cited in Levine).
Side effects of medicinal marijuana
When marijuana is smoked, THC passes rapidly from the lungs into the bloodstream, then the chemical reaches the brain and other bodily organs through the same process, according to NIDA. Marijuana over activates the brain cell receptors that respond to it and causes the “high” feeling; other effects include altered sensory input (brighter colors) (NIDA). Some user report breathing problems, especially those who are already predisposed, such as asthmatics or those with lung diseases.
Increased heart rate is common for up to three hours after smoking, and smoking marijuana during pregnancy is liked to increase the risk of brain and behavioral problems in infants, a cause of childhood delinquency. This may result in attention, memory, and problem-solving disorders (NIDA). Long-term effects of marijuana use might be linked to temporary hallucinations and paranoia (NIDA).
The side effects of marijuana use are due to the binding of the THC to cannabinoid receptors in the thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception portions of the brain – therefore, marijuana use can interfere with attention, balance, and judgment at times (Zimmermann). Many different studies available conflict as far as the cancer risk posed by smoking marijuana; if the drug is not smoked, these studies are immaterial for user risk (Zimmermann).
People who used marijuana may be more likely to contract pneumonia, respiratory problems, vomiting, and diarrhea than those who do not, according to Harvard Health Publications. The inability to focus and integrate different information types as well as short-term working memory and executive function in marijuana users is common but much less is known about the long-term or permanent effects of marijuana use and whether or not it produces cognitive problems down the line (HHP).
Harvard Health Publications have found that there is more a psychiatric risk than benefit to medical marijuana use, although it does reduce anxiety, improve mood, and sedate users. Harvard Health Publications stated that marijuana “may have contradictory effects in the brain depending on the dose of the drug and inborn genetic vulnerability, as well. Studies noted that one in nine regular marijuana users suffers from an addiction to the drug (HHP). Other side effects of marijuana use include anxiety, mood disorders, and psychosis – the THC increase in available marijuana in the United States may contribute to the potency and thus the detrimental mental effects for some users (HHP).
For some users, marijuana “calms” them, while for others, it brings on anxiety and fear of social situations (HHP). According to Harvard, the most common side effects reported following recreational marijuana use are panic attacks and intense feelings of anxiety; about 20-30 percent of users experience one or both of these after smoking marijuana (HHP). The level of THC dosage in the marijuana also seems to have an impact on the level of anxiety that accompanies the use of the drug; the higher the THC, the higher the anxiety in most cases (HHP).
Mood disorders such as bipolar disorder may increase manic episodes and rapid cycling between manic and depressive feelings and episodes; however, no link has been found between marijuana use and bipolar disorder development (HHP.) The results of depression studies and a link to marijuana are also inconclusive; however, marijuana has been shown to exacerbate psychotic symptoms in patients diagnosed with psychotic disorders such as genetic schizophrenia (HHP). There are some studies which suggest that marijuana use during early adolescence can increase psychosis development risk (HHP). One Swedish study indicated that heavy marijuana users (over fifty instances of use) were six times more likely to develop psychosis as those who were not heavy users (HHP).
Availability of medical marijuana
The states in which legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes is available include:
- The District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New York
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
Vaporized medical marijuana was legalized in New York as of June 2014, and Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin allow limited access to low THC/high CBD (cannabinoid) medical marijuana for patients and caregivers (Zimmermann). All states require a doctor’s approval and an I.D. card except Washington and Colorado, which allow recreational use; there may be an online application process for the required I.D. card or medical marijuana license (Zimmermann). Medical marijuana dispensaries are located in states where it is legal, and different conditions apply in each state; this includes the amount of marijuana that is legally dispensed and in what form the marijuana must be (Zimmermann).
Cannabis and epilepsy
There is a growing cadre of epilepsy patients and supporters who believe that epilepsy can be treated with significantly positive effects with legalized marijuana; specifically cannabinoids. The drug appears to control seizures very well in those who suffer from them (Epilepsy Foundation). Many children and their families who suffer from with intractable or refractory epilepsy have reported that high cannabidiol THC treatments have all but stopped their frequent seizures, and a girl named Charlotte with Dravet syndrome is now leading a normal life (Epilepsy Foundation).
Epiodolex, derived from cannabidiol (CBD), has been produced for study by GW Pharmaceuticals – it consists of purified, 99 percent oil-based CBD extract which is used in consistent amounts in each dosage (Epilepsy Foundation). The USFDA has allowed some epilepsy centers to dispense the drug for some sufferers – the hope is that Lennox-Gastuat syndrome and Dravet syndrome will one day be treatable or cured through the use of CBD, which produces no significant side effects in children (Epilepsy Foundation). In the Epidiolex study, 137 people ranging in age from 2 to 26 with unresponsive epilepsy variations saw a significant decrease in seizure number – up to 54 percent over twelve weeks of use (Epilepsy Foundation). (Decreasing seizures for epilepsy sufferers is key to leading a normal life.)
Patients with Dravet syndrome responded at an even higher level, with an average 63 percent decrease over three months (Epilepsy Foundation). The combination of Clobazam and Epidiolex produced a greater improvement than Epidiolex alone, and only 14 people did not see positive effects from the drug (Epilepsy Foundation). There were some side effects reported: sleepiness, diarrhea, fatigue, and decreased appetite, but were described as mild or moderate (Epilepsy Foundation). More serious side effects were reported, and two people died while in the study, but not due to Epidiolex (Epilepsy Foundation).
As an overall health addition to the human wellness routine, marijuana seems to be safe for many users; however, some people may be genetically, mentally, or even physically predisposed to tolerate the drug badly or not at all. Thus, a preference for marijuana is a personal decision and should be left up to the individual. It has been proven time and time again that drinking alcohol is more detrimental to the human body and to friends, family, and others around the user than marijuana (CBS News). In an interview Dr. Aaron Carroll, Professor of Pediatrics at Indiana University’s School of Medicine, CBS noted that “alcohol causes a lot more harm.” Most marijuana crime numbers are due to illegal distribution charges, while alcohol use contributes to violence, domestic violence, drinking and driving accidents, injuries, and sexual assault and rape (CBS). In the case of marijuana, the benefits seem to outweigh the risks.
CBS News. “Which is Worse, Booze or Pot? A Doctor Weighs In.” CBS News. CBS News, 2015. Web. 19 November 2015.
Epilepsy Foundation. “Medical Marijuana and Epilepsy.” Epilepsy Foundation. Web. 19 November 2015.
Green, Johnny. “Are Marijuana Dab Hits Safe? First Ever Scientific Review.” The Weed Blog. The Weed Blog, 2014. Web. 19 November 2015.
Harvard Health Publications. “Medical Marijuana and the Mind.” Harvard Medical School. Harvard Medical School, 2010. Web. 19 November 2015.
Levine, David. “Medical Marijuana: 4 Experts on Benefits vs. Risks.” Elsevier. Elsevier B.V., 2015. Web. 19 November 2015.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “DrugFacts: Marijuana.” National Institutes of Health. National Institutes of Health, 2015. Web. 19 November 2015.
Zimmermann, Kim Ann. “Medical Marijuana: Benefits, Risks, and State Laws. Livescience. Livescience, 2015. Web. 19 September 2015.