Medical Cannabis 101: How Marijuana is Used Medically
By Anna Wilcox
You’ve probably heard of medical cannabis by now. But, what is it, exactly? How is marijuana used medically? This article will tell you exactly what medical cannabis is, what it’s used for, and why.
What Is Medical Cannabis?
When most people think of cannabis, they may reminisce about their youth and rolling joints in the family garage. But, this image of cannabis is far from a complete picture of the impressive herb. The plant produces over 500 chemical compounds, and many of them have real, legitimate, and meaningful value in medicine. Cannabis compounds have been found to reduce pain, aid sleep, reduce inflammation, influence mood, and so much more.
Medical cannabis is the term given to marijuana that is used for therapeutic purposes. Adults and children with serious illnesses may be able to access medical cannabis. But, not without a recommendation from a qualified doctor. Whether or not a medical professional can legally recommend cannabis varies from country to country, and in the United States, from state to state.
Medical vs. Recreational Cannabis
Biologically, medical cannabis is the same as recreational cannabis—the same plants can be used for medical or recreational purposes. The primary difference between the two, however, is the way in which medical cannabis is used.
Medical cannabis, including THC-rich cannabis, is used to manage symptoms and improve quality of life in patients with severe illnesses. Recreational cannabis is used for fun (or for many other reasons). Here is a simple summary of some of the main differences:
- Medical cannabis is recommended for specific purposes.
- Different kinds of products are sold as medical cannabis.
- Medical cannabis is carefully dosed.
- Symptoms & side effects are monitored with medical cannabis.
- Medical cannabis patients often require stronger products.
How Marijuana is Used Medically
Around the globe, medical cannabis is catching on far more quickly than its recreational counterpart. And there are many good reasons why—medical cannabis may reduce symptoms and improve quality of life in people with severe, debilitating, and life-threatening illnesses.
Marijuana is used medically in a variety of ways and for a wide variety of conditions. Yet, unlike prescription medications, the way that different doctors utilize medical marijuana is quite variable—it really depends on how familiar your doctor is with medical cannabis.
Some canna-savvy doctors will be quite hands-on, giving patients guidelines on what types of cannabis to use, what dose, and what forms. Others, however, may simply write the recommendation and let specialists at medical cannabis dispensaries handle the details. In general, however, medical cannabis is used in three different forms:
Inhaled cannabis is exactly what it sounds like—cannabis that’s inhaled into the lungs. If a medical professional recommends inhaled cannabis, they will likely recommend vaporizing cannabis flower or concentrates, and only when absolutely necessary. Smoking cannabis can be irritating to the lungs and is considered more hazardous to overall health than vaporization. Inhaled cannabis is often preferred for patients who need immediate relief.
Inhaled cannabis is also a great way to benefit from the fragrant terpene profiles found alongside cannabinoids. In fact, it's because of terpenes that we have so many different cannabis strains.
Oral & Sublingual Cannabis
Oral cannabis preparations are swallowed. Sublingual cannabis preparations are absorbed under the tongue. Oral cannabis includes capsules, cannabis oil, edibles, and beverages. This cannabis preparation provides a longer-lasting experience than inhaled cannabis. Although, oral cannabis can also produce much stronger effects than inhaled cannabis, and can take over two hours for the active effects to take hold. Oral and sublingual cannabis is often used by patients who need long-lasting relief.
Topical cannabis is cannabis that is applied topically to the skin. This type of cannabis does not cause a “high.” Instead, topical cannabis works locally on the area to which it is applied. Different topicals also feature varied activation times, meaning that some products may take longer to kick in than others. Topical cannabis is often used by patients who need supplemental relief in a specific area.
Common Qualifying Conditions for Medical Cannabis in the United States
Over half of the states in the U.S. have legalized at least some type of medical cannabis program—36 states, to be exact. In Canada, medical cannabis is legal nationwide. But, not all patients can access the herb, even when it is legal for doctors to recommend. Further, in the United States, laws in each state list different qualifying conditions. For example, a medical condition deemed worthy of a medical cannabis recommendation in California may not qualify in Florida.
It is recommended to research medical cannabis laws in your state or region before requesting your healthcare provider’s recommendation. In some states, patients may be limited to certain types of cannabis, such as low-THC cannabis. In others, access to reliable medical cannabis dispensaries may be difficult. Yet, regardless, here is a brief list of some of the most common qualifying conditions for medical cannabis, and information on how cannabis is used medically for each condition:
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a recent addition to the qualifying condition list in many different states. However, different states may limit medical cannabis authorizations to patients experiencing extreme, debilitating, or self-injurious symptoms. In many medical cannabis states, ASD is a qualifying condition for pediatric patients.
Cancer is a qualifying medical cannabis condition in almost every state. Many medical cannabis patients use the plant during chemotherapy treatment to promote appetite, ease nausea and vomiting, and to manage cancer-related pain.
Although the scientific verdict is still out on what role cannabis can play in potentially treating the disease itself, studies have revealed that certain compounds in the plant can have a positive impact on cancer cells in rats, as well as breast cancer cells in vitro.
Epilepsy and other seizure disorders are qualifying conditions in almost every medical cannabis state. The World Health Organization (WHO), one of the most prestigious public health authorities, acknowledges that the cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD) has successfully treated epilepsy in multiple clinical trials.
One pharmaceutical company, GW Pharmaceuticals, currently markets CBD for some severe forms of epilepsy as a pharmaceutical drug. But, prescription treatment can be difficult for patients to acquire. Many patients with seizures rely on medical cannabis for relief—both due to preference and availability. A study published in Brain and Development found that CBD-enriched cannabis extract successfully reduced seizures in children and adolescents with treatment-resistant epilepsy.
HIV/AIDS is another common qualifying medical cannabis condition—one of the first. Patients often use cannabis to ease symptoms. According to a report from Americans for Safe Access, an organization that fights for medical cannabis access across the nation, medical cannabis may help increase appetite, reduce nausea and vomiting, fight fatigue, and ease pain related to HIV/AIDS.
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a progressive autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system. Numerous clinical trials have shown that cannabis compounds can reduce MS symptoms, including pain, muscle spasms, and mood. Already, a pharmaceutical drug that contains an even ratio of THC and CBD is available as an MS treatment in some countries. The drug, Sativex, is not available in the United States. In other countries, the novel drug is also substantially more expensive than medical cannabis.
Nausea and Vomiting
Cannabis has a long history as an antiemetic. So, it’s no surprise that nausea and vomiting frequently make it onto the list of qualifying medical cannabis conditions. Although, a queasy stomach isn’t likely to garner a medical cannabis recommendation—it’s chronic nausea and vomiting that is disabling and interferes with daily life that physicians are attempting to treat.
There’s another caveat to be considered, as well. Excessive cannabis consumption for prolonged periods of time may contribute to nausea and vomiting in some people. An experienced medical professional will be able to discern the difference between nausea and vomiting that is helped by cannabis, and when these symptoms are not.
Neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), are common qualifying conditions for medical cannabis. A qualified medical professional will usually recommend medical cannabis to ease symptoms, like pain and insomnia. A physician may also recommend cannabis to improve overall quality of life for those with neurodegenerative disease.
Chronic pain is one of the most common reasons why patients seek out medical cannabis recommendations. Already, medical cannabis is being explored as a potential alternative to addictive opioid painkillers. As such, debilitating pain is a common qualifying condition in many different states. Doctors may recommend medical cannabis as a natural analgesic to patients experiencing chronic, protracted pain.
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD)
Last but certainly not least, post-traumatic stress (PTSD) is one of the most recent qualifying conditions in medical cannabis states. Research on PTSD and cannabis is still in its infancy. Yet, some of the results of early experimental research are quite remarkable. Medical cannabis may help patients find relief from symptoms like nightmares, insomnia, and improve overall quality of life. But, only time and more research will reveal just how much cannabis can aid PTSD patients.
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