More than half of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form, and more are considering bills to do the same. Yet while many people are using marijuana, the FDA still hasn’t approved it as a treatment because there haven’t been enough studies to prove that it’s safe and effective.
Why hasn’t more research been done? One reason is that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, the same as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, and likely to be abused and lacking in medical value. Because of that, researchers need a special license to study it, says Marcel Bonn-Miller, PhD, a substance abuse specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
That may not change anytime soon. The DEA considered reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug like Ritalin or oxycodone, but decided in August to keep it as a Schedule I drug.
The agency did, however, agree to support additional research on marijuana and make the process easier for researchers.“Research is critically needed, because we have to be able to advise patients and doctors on the safe and effective use of cannabis,” Bonn-Miller says.
He shared some background on medical marijuana’s uses and potential side effects.
What is medical marijuana?
Medical marijuana uses the marijuana plant or chemicals in it to treat diseases or conditions. It’s basically the same product as recreational marijuana, but it’s taken for medical purposes.
The marijuana plant contains more than 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids. Each one has a different effect on the body. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the main chemicals used in medicine. THC also produces the “high” people feel when they smoke marijuana or eat foods containing it.
Medical Marijuana: What Does It Treat?
More and more states are legalizing marijuana to treat pain and illness. Find out what conditions it’s used for and the known side effects.
Medical marijuana is used to treat a number of different conditions, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Appetite loss
- Crohn’s disease
- Eating disorders such as anorexia
- Mental health conditions like schizophrenia and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle spasms
- Wasting syndrome (cachexia)
But it’s not yet proven to help many of these conditions, with a few exceptions, Bonn-Miller says.
“The greatest amount of evidence for the therapeutic effects of cannabis relate to its ability to reduce chronic pain, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, and spasticity [tight or stiff muscles] from MS,” Bonn-Miller says.
How does it help?
Cannabinoids — the active chemicals in medical marijuana — are similar to chemicals the body makes that are involved in appetite, memory, movement, and pain.
Research suggests cannabinoids might:
- Reduce anxiety
- Reduce inflammation and relieve pain
- Control nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy
- Kill cancer cells and slow tumor growth
- Relax tight muscles in people with MS
- Stimulate appetite and improve weight gain in people with cancer and AIDS
Can medical marijuana help with seizure disorders?
Medical marijuana received a lot of attention a few years ago when parents said that a special form of the drug helped control seizures in their children. So far, research hasn’t proved it works. But some epilepsy centers are testing a drug called Epidiolex, which is made from CBD, as a therapy for people with very severe or hard-to-treat seizures. In studies, some people had a dramatic drop in seizures after taking this drug. The drug has not received FDA approval.