May 06, 2014 03:07PM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
By Karlie Frank
There is no shortage of controversy in the world of medicine, and the battleground for medicinal marijuana is one of the most recent skirmishes. The federal government has outlawed marijuana since 1937 and classified it as a “Schedule 1” drug, a category for highly addictive and dangerous substances with no proven medical use. This classification has marijuana advocates off their couches and up in arms.
However, the government didn’t assign that classification lightly. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), approximately nine percent of people using marijuana become dependent on it, and this only increases in younger users. NIDA cites a wide range of harmful side effects, including impaired short-term memory and motor coordination, altered judgment, and increased heart rate. Long-term users are at an even graver risk, with consequences such as permanent cognitive impairment, respiratory issues, addiction, and even risk of psychiatric symptoms in certain individuals. Things now get hazy when you consider that 18 states and Washington, D.C. have legalized medicinal marijuana, even though federal law supersedes state law—namely, Uncle Sam can still arrest you if caught with it, no matter what. So why are these states directly defying federal ruling? Because research supports the stance that marijuana is a viable treatment for a growing list of diseases.
Most are familiar with its use to combat the negative side effects of chemotherapy. THC (the active chemical in marijuana) stimulates cannabinoid receptors in the brain, sparking chemical reactions that impact the nervous system. This fights nausea, provides pain relief—specifically nerve pain—and stimulates appetite. Users experience a feeling of sedation and decreased anxiety.
But the beneficiaries don’t stop at cancer patients. Those suffering from multiple sclerosis use it for its muscle relaxing effects. The heightened appetite brought on by THC combats AIDS wasting syndrome. Additionally, marijuana has been known to reduce symptoms in patients with ALS, Crohn’s disease, and other chronic illnesses. Marijuana may even play a role in preventing disease. Research from the California Pacific Medical Center suggests cannabidiol, another chemical in marijuana, may block reproduction of a gene believed to spread cancer cells. Studies from the Scripps Research Institute show that THC may stop enzymes associated with Alzheimer’s and prevent protein build-ups that hinder memory.
Marijuana has been used to treat glaucoma because of its ability to lower intra-ocular pressure—but it must be smoked every few hours to see these effects. So if smoking is your preferred method of intake, you risk trading in one condition for another: lung disease. Marijuana has also been used as an antipsychotic. However, as experts at Harvard Medical School warn, “Much more is known about the psychiatric risks of marijuana than its benefits.”
Typically patients do smoke marijuana, which is the quickest way to feel its effects, but there are alternatives. Many older patients grind up the buds into a powder to add to food or drinks, while others use it as a cooking ingredient directly in the forms of oil and butter, or “cannabutter.” To make this, herbal marijuana is heated with the butter or oil so that the cannabinoids are absorbed into the fat. People use these marijuana infused ingredients to make baked good such as brownies, hash cookies, muffins, and other special “space cakes,” as they’re endearingly called.
Still others use a vaporizer, believed to be better for your lungs than smoking. Additionally, the FDA has approved two pills containing synthetic THC, Marinol and Cesamet, as well as Sativex, a liquid spray combining both THC and cannabinoid. If you’re wondering how to get your hands on a prescription for some of this good stuff, the outlook has recently improved here in Maryland—if incrementally. Governor O’Malley signed a bill into law last year partially legalizing medicinal marijuana—with severe limitations. It will only be dispensed through public teaching hospitals, and all research programs at these hospitals are required to provide patient information to the health department and law enforcement. In fact, the parameters are so restrictive that Maryland will not be considered the 19th state to legalize medical marijuana, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Supporters of legalization worry that some Maryland hospitals will be hesitant to institute dispensaries and research centers because they won’t want to risk losing federal funding. This is a valid concern, but supporters do have other legislation to celebrate: in 2011, the state fine was dropped for those possessing less than an ounce of marijuana for medical use. And in this year’s General Assembly, the House and Senate approved the decriminalization of possession of 10 grams or less.
And even for the 18 states that have chosen to legalize, the administration process can be confusing. First off, you can only get a prescription for the pills or spray—marijuana in bud form can’t be prescribed due to its Schedule 1 status. Doctors can only recommend it. Each legalized state has its own list of conditions a patient must have in order to receive one. And according to a recent study, those who recommend smoking a joint, have another cause for concern.
Researchers at The University of New Haven in Connecticut have conducted genetic studies of marijuana and reached some very nasty conclusions. Byproducts in the plants include fungi, mildew, and even bacterial contaminants such as e-coli and salmonella. Intense scrutiny of growing and packaging conditions will be required to protect patients who choose to smoke their marijuana.
To muddle things further, there’s no dosage on a recommendation. The amount you’ll need to smoke to feel pain relief will depend on whether you’ve smoked before along with your unique body chemistry. So, doctors recommend starting out slow to see what works for you. Opponents take huge issue with this ambiguity, especially since smoking too much can actually cause extreme anxiety.
Once you have a recommendation, some states essentially turn a blind eye while you go and obtain it however you can. Others require you to go to a state regulated marijuana dispensary to get your buds. From this point on, it’s up to you to get smoking and let the weed do its work.
So, will marijuana help you with whatever condition with which you are struggling? Until the federal government lifts its prohibition and makes more valid research legal, it’s hard to say for sure. But there are thousands all over the country today who applaud its medical legitimacy—with hands not holding their freshly rolled joint, that is.
On April 7, 2014, the Maryland State legislature easily passed HB 881 effectively allowing the use of medical marijuana.—S.H.