The Merits of Medical Marijuana

The top 10 conditions it may help.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health
Few issues in the world of medicine are as controversial as the issue of medical marijuana. To date, 14 states—Alaska, Arizona,California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington—as well as Washington, D.C., have legalized the dispensing and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. And as other states weigh the option of joining the movement, the debate rages within the medical community as to whether pot is good medicine or a risky proposition to give a dangerous drug an undeserved halo of health.
1 of 13 Marijuana leaves (© Bob Gibbons/Photolibrary/Getty Images)


Marijuana is the drug of choice for many cancer patients going through chemotherapy because it can help quell the nausea that often comes as a side effect. It is theorized that cannabis alleviates nausea by working on receptors in the brain and by slowing down and reducing peristaltic contractions in the gastrointestinal tract. There are other anti-nausea drugs available, but medical marijuana proponents assert that this is a better alternative for many patients. “If the patient has not only nausea but also vomiting, an oral medication is not a satisfactory option, no matter how effective the medication may be,” says Dr. David Bearman, a California physician who has nearly 40 years of experience working in substance and drug abuse treatment and prevention programs.
2 of 13 Woman with arm across forehead (© CHASSENET/BSIP Medical/Photolibrary)


Many sufferers of this hard-to-treat condition find relief from their pain, stiffness and fatigue by using medical marijuana. Cannabis has been shown to have some anti-inflammatory effects and it’s a powerful pain reliever. Proponents consider it one of the best treatments for fibromyalgia, with fewer side effects than Lyrica, the FDA-approved medication. But critics point to the lack of FDA approval and regulation as one of the problems with medical marijuana. “Bypassing the FDA undermines consumer protection,” says Dr. Eric A. Voth, a physician in Topeka, Kan., and a drug policy expert. “And the concentrations of THC in marijuana vary greatly, from 2 percent to around 30 percent.”
3 of 13 Woman curled up on a bed (© George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)


The anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of cannabis are the main reasons arthritis sufferers may find relief from sore, swollen and stiff joints when using it. How you use medical marijuana will dictate both how much you need to see an effect and how quickly it will work. “If you smoke it or vaporize it, you can utilize a lower dose and the response will be immediate,” says Bearman. “But if you consume it in food, it will take more of the drug to see effects and the response time will be about 45 minutes to an hour.”

Video: Pros and Cons of Legalizing Pot>

4 of 13 Man rubs his hand (© Creatas/Comstock/Photolibrary)


Glaucoma causes an increase in internal eye pressure, but, according to Bearman, using medical marijuana can decrease that pressure for up to 20 hours at a time. The most common conventional treatments are drops placed in the eyes, which some patients do not tolerate well. One of the downsides of cannabis as your treatment is that, unlike a conventional prescription medication, health insurance does not currently pay for medical marijuana. That may put the treatment out of reach for some patients.
5 of 13 Closeup of an eye (© Denise Hesse/Phototake Science/Photolibrary)


It is hard to find one medicine that can treat the full array of premenstrual syndrome symptoms: bloating and stomach distress, moodiness, cramps, backache and headache. Marijuana, thanks to its role as both an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, can take care of many of the physical symptoms. And it also works in the brain to modulate neurotransmission and make dopamine more available. That can have a mood-lifting effect. “Another advantage is that cannabis is very fast acting, so relief can be nearly immediate,” says Bearman.
6 of 13 Woman in bed with hot-water bottle on her belly (© Andreas Stamm/Getty Images)


The exact mechanism of action that enables medical marijuana to aid the symptoms of Alzheimer’s aren’t really understood, but Bearman theorizes that it may help quell the anxiety and panic that often plagues Alzheimer’s patients. Critics say that the lack of research means lack of hard evidence of marijuana’s effectiveness and potential downsides. “For most illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, marijuana has not been examined in a double blind study with conventional medicines,” says Voth. “And marijuana is highly impure, with 488 substances, including the 66 cannabinoids (the active substances of cannabis), having been identified in it.”
7 of 13 Older man in armchair (© Thomas Odulate/Cultura/Getty Images)


Medical marijuana can help HIV and AIDS patients deal with pain, but it probably is most commonly used to quell nausea and boost appetite. It’s not just recreational smokers who get the munchies, and for patients who have lost their appetites or are having trouble eating sufficient calories, this side effect of marijuana can be a tremendous benefit.
8 of 13 HIV/AIDS virus (© Ingram Publishing/Photolibrary)

Crohn’s disease

People with this inflammatory bowel disease suffer from a myriad of gastrointestinal issues caused by the inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract. Symptoms include abdominal pain and severe diarrhea. Marijuana has been found to be helpful in alleviating some of the inflammation, but also by slowing the peristaltic contractions to help calm and slow down the gastrointestinal system. “They can have fewer bowel movements, better formed stools, less abdominal pain and need to use less conventional medicine,” says Bearman.
9 of 13 Man bent over, seemingly in pain (© BananaStock/Photolibrary)


When you smoke (or consume) marijuana, a mechanism called retrograde inhibition helps slow the speed of neurotransmission in the brain. For migraine sufferers, whose headaches are often caused by excessive neural stimulation, this action can help alleviate the pain and other symptoms, like nausea and sensitivity to light, that commonly accompany migraines. And while proponents tout marijuana’s lack of side effects, the critics beg to differ. “Marijuana is not a benign substance,” says Voth. “Memory and cognitive impairment is real, and the negative effect on driving is a huge issue.”
10 of 13 Woman rubbing her head (© Thinkstock Images/Comstock Images/Getty Images)