Medical Marijuana: It's Complicated

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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.

Risks

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?

Find Help Near You

Use the SAMHSA Treatment Locator to find substance use or other mental health services in your area. If you are in an emergency situation, this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: call 1-800-273-TALK, or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member.

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