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Drugs & Health Blog

Medical Marijuana: It's Complicated

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
Sara Bellum

Doesn’t the term “medical marijuana” sound like an oxymoron?

Medicine is the science and art of healing, while marijuana is an illegal drug that affects your brain and body. How can marijuana be considered medicine? The answer is complicated—and controversial.


The potential medical uses of marijuana have been the subject of much research and heated debate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the Government agency that approves all medicines for use in this country—has not approved marijuana to treat any disease or condition. That's because scientists can’t prove that smoked marijuana is safe.

Marijuana is a plant whose makeup of chemicals and potency varies from plant to plant. Studying an inconsistent plant makes it difficult for scientists to test for safety and health benefits. In addition, scientists don’t yet know the effects that some of those chemicals have on our health.

As with tobacco smoke, marijuana smoke is harmful to the lungs. Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same health problems as someone who smokes tobacco, such as daily cough, more frequent upper respiratory illnesses, and a greater risk of lung infections like pneumonia.

Despite these health concerns, several states have passed medical marijuana laws, which remove the criminal penalties for possessing and using marijuana when prescribed by a physician. You may have heard that some physicians are recommending marijuana to patients with cancer.

More Research Is Needed

Making smoked marijuana legal for medical use is not the only option for taking advantage of the medical benefits from marijuana’s active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Currently, two FDA-approved THC pills are used to treat nausea in cancer chemotherapy patients and to increase appetite in some patients with AIDS. On its own, THC can improve other symptoms, such as chronic pain and muscle spasms, with fewer risks than smoking the plant. Scientists continue to investigate the benefits and negatives of THC and other marijuana compounds.

The most promising research to date has been on cannabinoids—compounds that bind to the same receptors in the brain as THC. NIDA supports multiple studies investigating the role of cannabinoids in a healthy brain and body. Ultimately, this research may help uncover potential therapies to treat medical conditions, with low risk of abuse.

There’s no question that the debate and research about medical marijuana is going to continue for a long time, but NIDA remains committed to focusing on the science of drug abuse, and will share its research to inform future medical marijuana laws.

What do you think? Should marijuana be legalized for helping to treat diseases like cancer? If it were legalized for medical purposes, how would you prevent people without a prescription from obtaining it and using it nonmedically?

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


This is a great article, kudos! I feel it is legal if it is accessible by clinical trials, watching over the people to be safe. Lovin' Sara Bellum, Lovin' tell our teen groups how to be aware to prevention!

thats cool but its bad 4 u

that is good that yall put this kind of stuff on here so that we can learn this cause some people think that this is a bad thing but any way that is good.

OMG i never knew what marijuana could do to someone this makes me think what else could kill mee

This article is appalling in so many ways, with half truths and lies! This plant is being studied and bred to to be nonintoxicating; also to have different effects to help benefit the differing needs for different patients. If you throw this medicine to the side before it can be studied further in depth we will never know what it can be capable of doing for the sick. Honestly tell the youth the truth that the drugs that the pharmacies are using to treat the sick now are possibly causing them more harm then good. Yes, marijuana should not be legal to the public like Tylenol is, but strictly regulated by the Government so that street dealers can not control it anymore. So ask yourself this would you want a gun toting criminal controlling this medicine or our Government to regulate it and bring in a enormous profit that will benefit you and I both. Take the power from the street dealers and keep our kids safe from a potential drug related crime! In the near future more will understand that this will be a safer alternative to dangerously addictive painkillers "opana", stimulants such as adderall, and anxiety medicines like Ativan.

First, you are correct, prescription medications can be dangerous – that is why it is very important that you take them only as prescribed and while under the supervision of a doctor. Second, as we mentioned in our blog, NIDA-supported researchers and others are working on developing medications derived from marijuana’s active ingredient, THC. In fact, two are already on the market, and several others are being developed.

Its crazy how even at the age of 15 or 16 your brain is not fully matured. When you think about it its crazy how much it could change your life so much. Your brain is like mold and when you do drugs it totaly changes the shape and change your life and brain forever. One choce as a kid could change your whole adult life.

this drug and what you have said about it is almost all correct...however you only covered the bad things and what COULD happen. not what is happening. i think you need to do more research on marijuana before you eve think about insulting the people who are benefiting from this plant. sorry but you chose the wrong drug to screw with.

and plus why are you benefiting from only two pills when there are a ton of types of marijuana to choose from all with more than one medical property hidden in the plant. dont focus on the bad because all that does is insult people and makes yourself look bad to the people who are actually right about this herb.

No insult intended. And although NIDA focuses on the science and not on policy, we do appreciate that this is a complicated and controversial issue.

If you focus on science not policy then you should really do some reading of current research. Not pieces published 30-50 years ago. Every statement NIDA has made surrounding this article has focused on why smoking medical marijuana should not be allowed and why it's dangerous. Not one POSITIVE thing has come from and NIDA username. And you also failed to state that the THC pills approved by the FDA are NOT the same THC derived from the Marijuana plant, it's synthetic THC. To make issues like this less complicated and less controversial you need to bring ACTUAL facts to the table from BOTH sides. But the readers of this article should have expected a one-sided article after all this is a .gov website.

@Educated_Toker As stated in its mission, NIDA focuses its research on drug abuse and addiction.  Other institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute, are exploring possible medical uses for marijuana. Some studies have indicated that THC may help with specific side effects of cancer and cancer therapies such as nausea and vomiting, stimulating appetite, and pain relief.  However, research also shows that marijuana can have negative effects on the brain and body. For more detailed information on the negative effects of marijuana visit:

For more detailed information about the possible medical uses of THC in relation to cancer you can visit the National Cancer Institute and their information about cannabis and cannabinoids:

It is important to note that NIDA does research and does NOT create policy. Marijuana continues to be illegal federally and in many states. The FDA has not approved marijuana for medical use, but has approved two cannabinoids (dronabinol and nabilone) for the treatment of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting in patients who have not responded to standard therapy.

whats complicated about it! in healthy doses its fine

In france its illegal to smoke marijuana
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The FDA doesn't approve Marijuana as medicine because of how much money they would lose if a person could grow their own medicine. Marijuana would eliminate many of the drugs that pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars from (I.e Anti Depressants,Pain Medicines) Also, isn't it funny that our government claims Marijuana has no medical benefit yet they hold the patent for Medical Marijuana (check out US Patent 6630507 titled “Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants”) [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

Actually, the FDA has approved medications that are based on cannabinoids, one of the active ingredients found in marijuana. They include dronabinol (Marinol®) and nabilone (Cesamet®) and a new, chemically pure mixture of plant-derived THC and cannabidiol called Sativex®, formulated as a mouth spray and approved in Canada and parts of Europe for the relief of cancer-associated pain and spasticity and neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis. Scientists continue to investigate the medicinal properties of THC and other cannabinoids to better evaluate and harness their ability to help patients suffering from a broad range of conditions, while avoiding the adverse effects of smoked marijuana. So expect additional medications to become available in the near future.

It is the most well studied plant. It is true that big pharmaceutical companies know they would be dealt with a reduction in sales of their chemicals. The "fear factor" is used to promote the industries selling of their drugs. Natural plants are synthesized in the labs. Side effects range and up to and including death. Big business will fight tooth and nail to sell their drugs. Natural healing is frowned on. It is a fight that will never end. Corporations against the public.

Many studies and patient testimony have verified the medicinal values of cannabis. If there is no medicinal value than why try have marinol? Furthermore, the USA government, through the Health Dept, patented Marijuana for nuerological disease treatment in 2003.

Furthermore, one in depth recent study shows, when a teenager drinks alcohol, the left side of their brain is affected and white matter is reduced or in other words less brains. When marijuana is smoked it makes the left side of the brain increase in size and white matyer. When a teenager uses both alcohol and marijuana, the effects cancel out and the brain has the same white matter a teenager who never used marijuana or alcohol.

Is marijuana more dangerous than alcohol? One thing I will say, ifmarijuana werelegal, the drug companies would lose a lot of money and many people may choose to use marijuana instead of alcohol. Law enforcement would have to lay off many officers, court officers, and correction guards...the country's unemployment would what will the government do? Just keep everything the same?

@Concerned American You’re right that certain medications are made from components of marijuana; however, smoking it is not good medicine because of the potential negative effects (to lungs, for example). It is definitely true that alcohol is harmful to the developing brain, and it is best to avoid alcohol – especially binge drinking – until the brain is fully developed. And although marijuana’s ingredients can be used in medicine, smoking it carries too much risk compared with the possible protective effect seen in one study.

I agree and disagree with some of these responses. In a way I do believe that the FDA is obviously not going to approve of something thats not going to make medicine companies any money. However the responses that are totally bashing the possibility of this being a form of medication are a little off base. If someone were to have a disease that caused them alot of pain and marijuana was what made them feel better, let them have it. If you have a painful disease, doctors should be ok with something that can make you feel better if they actually care at all. I think medical marijuana is a valid possibility and people should stop arguing with it because not everyone is going to use it for the wrong reasons.

Despite the different opinions about using medicinal cannabis for treatment.Medical uses for marijuana can be proven by people with serious ailments and can testify that it relieved them from the painful and debilitating symptoms and provide them a functional life.

There are other ways to take Medical Marijuana besides smoking it; one can vaporize it and thus completely avoid the unwanted effects from the combustion products, or one can extract the essential oil of the cannabis plant and eat it. I would imagine burning the material would destroy a good portion of its medical potential anyway, so doctors ought to urge the other 2 methods instead.

It's pretty interesting too that Medical Marijuana is still so controversial, yet there's no debate about Medical Methamphetamine, which already exists marketed under the name Desoxyn®, for treatment of ADHD. It can be prescribed to children as young as 6 years old. If even the scary drug Meth can find its place in medicine, then marijuana definitely deserves it too.

Yep, THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) has been shown to have therapeutic value in treating things like chronic pain, nausea in cancer patients, and “wasting syndrome” in people with HIV. NIH-supported scientists continue to explore such medical uses for THC through routes other than inhaling smoke into your lungs.

Yes its bad for you but why is it used for medical use if its not proven by scientist that its safe to use or smoke as well as digest it ?

Hi Roxen,
Marijuana’s use as medicine is still controversial; in fact, the FDA does not recognize marijuana as medicine, partly for the reason you mention—it is not generally safe to use because the ingredients and potency can vary widely. That makes it really hard to control the dosage of THC (marijuana’s active ingredient) when the leaves are smoked or eaten. However, researchers are developing relatively safe medicines (in nasal spray and pill form) derived from THC, to treat pain and nausea and other problems, and some are already on the market. 

Medical Marijuana is available, it does not make you high, and it is legal. CBD is the compound that we need to focus on, not THC. It doesn't really matter what is legal or not ... potentially dangerous things exist, laws can only help so much in preventing people from abusing them. If a teen has purpose and hope in their life, abuse, escape and depression will not be a problem. Heal the family, heal our country, heal our government, heal our manipulative media and entertainment industries ... and drug abuse will all but disappear.
we shouldn't compare marijuana with alcohol, it seems people here are switching topics. I think no one cares if we use it for medication. But most people interested in this subject defend it because they like getting high. There are already meds for everything THC is helpful with, so why would we need it, except maybe in rare situations? If we were to compare it with another drug; look at tobacco, which also has many positive medicimal properties, but no one denies anymore that it is deadly.
Yeah let's trust the FDA, they approve drugs that kill more people than all illegal drugs combined.