The medical marijuana debate is an interesting one because there’s such a wide diversity of opinions and views that oppose each other. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug. They consider these drugs to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse” and to be some of the most dangerous drugs, because they’re highly addictive and may cause “severe psychological or physical dependence.” Other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy and meth. Many who are against marijuana believe the drug is dangerous, harmful and feel it should remain illegal.
Then on the other side of the fence many believe—especially those who use it medicinally—that despite its stigma, marijuana is not only not dangerous but has great value as a medicinal herb for treating various conditions. Some of these believe that marijuana is harmless and that you should have the right to consume the drug if you so desire.
When you weigh the pros and cons of consuming marijuana, it seems confusing that the drug would sit alongside some of the others in that DEA list. The most controversial point about medical marijuana—like many other medicinal substances out there—is that it has its uses. It’s the potential abuse of this substance that has many questioning its necessity.
In theory, you can abuse anything, including alcohol, prescription medicine and even marijuana. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the evidence both for and against marijuana use.
What can happen when you consume marijuana?
When you start discussing the health problems associated with marijuana, a great deal of them have to do with the smoking aspect.
Aside from lung cancer, smoking has the possibility of generating many pulmonary diseases. That has everything to do with the smoke and nothing to do with what’s in marijuana. Cigarettes and cigars, for instance, have the same effect.
When you smoke marijuana, the compounds may reach their peak within minutes. Alternatively, the effects may last up to an hour or more, depending on potency. When ingested, however, marijuana can take several hours to reach peak levels and the intoxication effects last just as long as if they had been smoked.
If you directly ingest marijuana—through something like a pill, for example—you wouldn’t experience a majority of the health risks that come from smoking it. That’s not to say marijuana is completely safe to consume in other forms.
Whether you smoke marijuana or directly ingest it, it leads to the THC and other cannabinoids directly interacting with two different types of receptor cells within the brain and body. The CB1 receptor controls body movements, memory and even balance, so smoking marijuana can affect your short-term memory and coordination. The CB2 receptor, on the other hand, has more to do with your immune system. This includes how marijuana affects your spleen and lymph nodes. One of the most common uses for marijuana is to suppress these parts of the body, diseased or otherwise.
Marijuana can be ingested by transferring the THC and other cannabinoids to butter. This butter is then used to bake a wide variety of foods, including cakes, brownies and more. However, it’s difficult to determine the proper dosage when consuming the drug in this form and so it’s possible for those ingesting it to get too strong a dose. If that happens, eating too much can cause severe vomiting, dizziness and even loss of consciousness.
When transferred to oil form, which allows marijuana to be used with a vaporizer, the extraction process is dangerous. Extraction requires the use of flammable gases like butane, so the process can put those involved, and anyone nearby, in danger.
In addition, it has been documented that cannabis can cause serious paranoia and mental instability. It can even bring existing problems to the surface. After consuming the drug, it’s possible to experience severe anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, psychotic episodes, schizophrenia and periods of intense inward reflection. These side effects can be short term, but there have also been claims that symptoms persist in some people.
Other issues that may arise from chronic consumption of marijuana include decreased energy levels and sex drive, personality changes, memory impairment, neuropsychological decline, and more.
With all of these potential issues, it begs the question: why would anyone want to use marijuana medicinally? The answer lies in the alleviation of pain relating to particular areas of the body.
Pros of medical marijuana
There are many health benefits of smoking or ingesting marijuana. Of course, ingesting is more beneficial as patients or those involved are not also taking in smoke and tars—which usually come from smoking any kind of tobacco or drugs.
Marijuana can relieve many types of chronic pain, nausea and vomiting from any number of ailments. Those suffering from illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS—or even the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat these problems—may benefit from consuming marijuana.
In many cases, patients consuming cannabinoids—smoked or ingested via pills—experience improved immune functions, and have even gained weight when they wouldn’t otherwise do so. For example, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy treatments may feel better and be more inclined to eat solid foods as the THC in marijuana balances out their system.
Those suffering from severe personality disorders such as ADHD, ADD, social anxiety and many others even claim to feel better after ingesting or smoking marijuana. This is especially interesting, considering the drug has been known to cause mental instability in others.
Based on various studies, here is a partial list of some of the positive things marijuana can do:
- Reduce or control epileptic seizures
- Can decrease symptoms from Dravet’s syndrome
- THC may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease
- May prevent or settle down muscle spasms
- Alleviates symptoms from Hepatitis C treatments
- It may be used to treat inflammatory bowel diseases
- May be used to improve metabolism
- It can soothe Parkinson’s disease tremors
- Can be used to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Cons of medical marijuana?
Aside from the fact that the federal government classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, there are some additional cons worth discussing. Of course, if a law enforcement officer encounters you with the drug in your possession, the penalty may range from a small fine to a prison sentence—depending on how much you have on you and whether or not you’ve been authorized to use it medicinally or not.
Although marijuana may be legal in some states, possession is still illegal in others. Therefore, if you cross state lines with the drug in your possession—legally obtained or not—you may still incur penalties.
Additionally, smoking or ingesting marijuana can have the following health risks:
- Impairment of thinking, problem-solving skills and memory
- Lowered reaction times and altered perception
- Reduced balance and coordination
- Apathy, drowsiness and depression which may affect personality and mood
- Increased risk of heart attack
- Heightened risk of chronic cough and respiratory infections
- Potential for hallucinations and withdrawal symptoms
- Immune system suppression from long-term use
- Reduction of sexual capacity and male sex hormones
It’s also worth noting that smoking marijuana is more dangerous than ingesting it, particularly because of the hazards associated with smoking. Believe it or not, marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 per cent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco smoke, which means it has a much higher potential to cause cancer of the lungs and respiratory tract.
Marijuana smokers are at a much greater risk for contracting lung cancer, especially since marijuana smoke is commonly inhaled and held in the lungs longer than tobacco smoke, increasing the lungs’ exposure to hazardous chemicals and carcinogens.
Many habitual marijuana users will disagree with this argument, as would tobacco smokers of both the cigarette and cigar variety. Smokers do not like to associate cancer with their habit, true or not. That doesn’t change the fact that smoking of any kind increases the risk for lung cancer and other pulmonary diseases. That’s not to say you’re guaranteed to have these problems if you smoke, it just means you’re at a much higher risk than someone who doesn’t smoke.
Furthermore, marijuana you purchase from a licensed seller may be remarkably different from what you buy on the street. It can sometimes contain more harmful chemicals within.
Whether you believe the health risks of marijuana are minimal or not, circumstance will vary from case to case. As with any prescription drug there are potential dangers and side effects. Discuss all the options available to you with your doctor before trying medical marijuana. There may be additional health risks and drawbacks, or there may not. Ultimately, the question to ask yourself is if the pros of using the drug outweigh the cons.
Come to the best decision about medical marijuana usage by empowering yourself with in-depth knowledge on the topic. Here are a couple of resources for further reading:
The most comprehensive, easy-to-use book available on understanding and using medical marijuana. Revised and updated with the latest information on varietals, delivery and dosing, and treatable conditions.
This comprehensive sourcebook combines evidence-based insights from more than 1,000 studies from cannabinoid and consciousness research to present a convincing case for the powerful healing effects of medical marijuana on over 100 chronic symptoms and diseases.
image: Young cannabis plant via Shutterstock