Marijuana has been used for thousands of years around the world for its therapeutic properties. In fact, until the 1930s, American doctors recommended the use of marijuana for a variety of ailments, particularly pain relief. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, the federal government began regulating this substance more strictly. Today, marijuana is illegal in the United States, just as it is in many parts of the world. Despite federal laws prohibiting the use of marijuana, however, 16 states, including California, Colorado, and New Jersey, have legalized marijuana for medical purposes.

Medical Uses of Marijuana

Those who favor the use of marijuana for medical purposes cite studies showing a variety of benefits, including:

  • Relief of nausea and vomiting for people with cancer and HIV. Marijuana also improves appetite for these patients.
  • Relief of intraocular eye pressure for people with glaucoma.
  • Pain relief, especially for people with HIV and spinal cord injuries.
  • Relief of painful symptoms for patients with multiple sclerosis and ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Studies have indicated that marijuana may be effective in treating many other conditions, including alcoholism, asthma, bipolar disorder, depression, digestive problems, epilepsy, and Parkinson's disease.

Medical marijuana may be administered by smoking or vaporizing the plant products, drinking or eating food containing marijuana extracts, or by taking a pill containing the drug.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the component of marijuana primarily responsible for its psychoactive effects. THC is available in synthetic form as the drug Marinol, which is used to treat Tourette's Syndrome. Other cannabinoids (the active compounds in marijuana) approved for prescription medications by the FDA include Nabilone and Canasol.

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Controversial Elements

Despite growing acceptance of marijuana use among the public, the practice remains controversial for several health-related and legal reasons. Opponents caution that the effects of marijuana are still not completely understood. Marijuana contains hundreds of compounds, some of which have not yet been identified and studied. Moreover, legalizing medical marijuana conveys the message that it is a safe, harmless substance, when in reality it is a psychoactive drug with a great potential for abuse. New evidence shows that marijuana is more addictive than we realized in the past, especially for young users. In addition, marijuana use may aggravate mental illness.

Although many patients who use medical marijuana employ vaporizers, many others who use marijuana medically or recreationally smoke it, putting themselves at risk for problems like lung damage or cancer.

Currently, medical marijuana dispensaries can offer very little quality control or standardization. They also occupy an odd position legally. Although marijuana dispensaries may be legal according to state law, they are illegal under federal law; several well-known marijuana dispensaries have been raided by the federal government lately.

The American Society of Addiction Medicine urges doctors not to prescribe marijuana for their patients until the industry is better regulated and the drug has been more thoroughly studied. They argue that medical marijuana and cannabinoids should be handled like other drugs, and they recommend that doctors wait to prescribe marijuana until it has been approved by the FDA and legalized by the federal government.