This is the second post of a 3-part series on the science of medical marijuana. Check out Part 1: What’s Wrong With “Medical Marijuana”? and Part 3: Medicines or Poisons?—Why Cannabinoids Can Both Help and Hurt You.
What people usually mean by “medical marijuana” is use of an unprocessed (raw) plant to treat illness—or herbal medicine, in other words. Unprocessed means the leaves, stems, or seeds are just taken off the plant and used.
Before the 20th century, that’s mostly what medicine was.
But science has made a lot of progress in the last several decades, and generally it hasn’t looked back. It’s because we now have ways of picking out the specific chemicals that are useful from plants and putting just those parts in a pill, without all the unwanted chemicals that might cause side effects or even be toxic.
This is what a lot of scientists are busy doing right now with marijuana—trying to figure out which chemicals in the plant really are useful in treating health problems and then finding ways to deliver them safely and effectively to patients to treat their conditions.
Turning Marijuana into Medicine
At the last count, scientists have found over 500 separate chemicals in the marijuana plant. The main chemical that gives users the “high” is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, but there are over 100 other chemicals in marijuana that have a similar molecular structure to THC. This family of chemical compounds is called cannabinoids.
So far, there are two FDA-approved medications containing THC for treating nausea and appetite problems caused by cancer chemotherapy and AIDS. Other drugs with THC in them have been approved already in other countries for treating symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) and are now being carefully tested before being approved in the United States.
Another marijuana chemical is cannabidiol, or CBD. News reports have highlighted some families who are living in states where medical marijuana is legal so their children with bad forms of epilepsy can get special high-CBD marijuana extracts to help control seizures.
These extracts probably still contain other, possibly harmful ingredients. But a medicine only containing CBD is now being tested in the United States. If the science finds that CBD really is a good treatment for seizures, eventually patients may be able to take that or another safe, CBD-based medication. This could help people get the safe treatment they need.
Cannabinoids and Other Diseases
Lots of different cannabinoid chemicals are being studied to see whether they have beneficial effects on conditions ranging from addictions and other mental health problems to pain and other serious conditions. Most are still a long way from being studied in humans and going on to become medications.
In Part 3, we’ll look at why chemicals in the marijuana plant could be so helpful even though they may also be harmful. It turns out, marijuana’s not unique in being two-faced!