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Legalize It? Medical Marijuana Fully Explained

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To light up or not to light up? That was the question this year, when Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana and Arkansas rejected a similar initiative.

A Healthy High — Why It Matters

Medical marijuana is prescribed by physicians to alleviate symptoms of disorders ranging from anxiety to glaucoma to wasting disease. It’s already legal in 17 states (Connecticut was the most recent legalizer, in 2012) and Washington, D.C. This election season, Massachusetts voted to legalize medical marijuana while Arkansas voted against it. Medical marijuana legislation is still currently pending in Illinois, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Lawmakers will decide whether qualifying patients and healthcare professionals can purchase, carry, and use small amounts of marijuana.

Since ancient times, people have been smoking joints to cure a variety of physical and psychological ailments. As early as 2737 B.C., the Chinese Emperor Shen Neng recommended marijuana to treat gout, rheumatism, malaria, and even a faulty memory (ironic). Ancient Hindus used marijuana to beat stress and relieve pain during childbirth.

Today, medical experts still use marijuana as a treatment for a range of medical complaints. Marijuana can help ease nausea and vomiting for chemotherapy patients; stimulate appetite in people with HIV and AIDS; relieve muscle tension and spasms in people who suffer from multiple sclerosis; help treat glaucoma; relieve anxiety; and provide pain relief, especially for terminally ill patients. Some research even suggests marijuana can help delay the growth of certain types of cancer in the human body.

Indeed, marijuana is more complicated than Jay and Silent Bob would have us believe. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a cannabinoid (or class of chemical compounds) in marijuana that binds to endocannabinoid receptors in the brain and body, reducing pain (indica strains) and anxiety (sativa strains). It’s the heavier intake, particularly of the sativa strain of cannabis, that produces that high-as-a-kite feeling. But not every health expert is on board with keeping a stash of marijuana in the medicine cabinet.

Doctor’s Orders — The Answer/Debate

There’s plenty of recent research suggesting marijuana and other cannabinoids can help treat a variety of medical conditions like the ones outlined above [1] [2] [3]But other studies suggest long-term use of high doses of marijuana may have some unfavorable side effects, including lethargy, loss of balance, and even anxiety and panic attacks. There’s also the possibility that users can become dependent on marijuana and go through withdrawal when usage stops [2]. Plus, long-term marijuana use has been linked to increased risk for respiratory problems [5]. Some researchers even suggest marijuana use escalates the onset of schizophrenia and psychosis among people who are prone to these psychiatric disorders [6] [7]. Those with cardiovascular disease and substance use disorders may also experience adverse effects and, ultimately, marijuana’s usefulness may depend on the specific individual who’s using it [2].

Aside from the debate over medical marijuana’s helpfulness (or lack thereof), it’s worth noting that none of the states with pending marijuana legislation plan to let anyone travel with a truck-full of pot. Voters in most states will decide whether eligible patients can cultivate or possess fairly small amounts (a few ounces) of marijuana or obtain it from state-regulated dispensaries.

Stay tuned throughout the year for updates on the marijuana sitch; ’til the results are in, it might just be a half-baked idea.

Do you think marijuana should be legal? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @ShanaDLebowitz.

I'm the senior writer at Greatist, and I mainly cover new trends in psychology and mental health. When I'm not hanging out at Greatist HQ,... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. The Therapeutic Potential of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. Grotenhermen, F., Muller-Vahl, K. Institute of Neurology, University College London, Queen Square, London, UK. Lancet Neurology 2003; 2(5):291-8.
  2. Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke. Grant, I., Hampton Atkinson, J., Goaux, B., et al. Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research; University of California, San Diego; San Diego, CA. The Open Neurology Journal 2012;6:18-25.
  3. Medical marijuana: medical necessity versus political agenda. Clark, P.A., Capuzzi, K., Fick, C. Jesuit Community, St Joseph's University, Philadelphia, PA. Medical Science Monitor 2011;17(12): RA249-61.
  4. Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke. Grant, I., Hampton Atkinson, J., Goaux, B., et al. Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research; University of California, San Diego; San Diego, CA. The Open Neurology Journal 2012;6:18-25.
  5. Effects of Marijuana Smoking on Pulmonary Function and Respiratory Complications: A Systematic Review. Tetrault, J.M., Krothers, K., Moore, B.A., et al. Clinical Epidemiology Research Center, Department of Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System, West Haven Veterans Affairs Medical Center, West Haven, CT. Archives of Internal Medicine 2007; 167(3):221-8.
  6. Cannabis, vulnerability, and the onset of schizophrenia: an epidemiological perspective. Hambrecht, F., Hafner, H. Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University of Cologne, Germany. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 200; 34(3):458-75.
  7. Legalization, decriminalization & medicinal use of cannabis: a scientific and public health perspective. Svarick, D.M., Lustman, P.J., Mallya, A. et al. Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis. Missouri Medicine 2012;109(2):90-8.
  8. Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke. Grant, I., Hampton Atkinson, J., Goaux, B., et al. Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research; University of California, San Diego; San Diego, CA. The Open Neurology Journal 2012;6:18-25.