These are the basics of medical marijuana: what it is, why it might be good for you, how long it’s been around, whether it’s legal, and how you can get legal access where you live.
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What is Medical Marijuana?
Medical marijuana refers to using the whole cannabis plant, or the plant’s basic extracts, for the treatment of various ailments or conditions. If you’re not treating ailments or conditions, marijuana can’t be labeled medical marijuana.
Often, people become confused between the terms cannabis and marijuana. Cannabis is a category for a plant species that includes both hemp and marijuana. For a lot of people, the best way to think about cannabis is with an analogy: hemp and marijuana are to cannabis as lemons and oranges are to citrus. Two related but different plants, from the same “family.”
The characteristic that defines marijuana from hemp is the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound in cannabis that gets users high. Hemp is almost devoid of THC but often high in another cannabinoid – cannabidiol (CBD). Hemp has 0.3 percent THC or less while the threshold for marijuana starts at a THC concentration of 0.31 percent or higher. Both forms of cannabis, hemp and marijuana, have been shown to contain medically beneficial levels of differing cannabinoids, active compounds found in the cannabis plant.
Cannabis contains over 85 cannabinoids, some of which have been found to have therapeutically beneficial properties. The two major cannabinoids found in cannabis that academic and scientific studies demonstrate to possess the most therapeutic properties are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), though a number of other cannabinoids, like cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabinol (CBN), also exhibit health benefits.
These cannabinoids interact directly with the body’s endocannabinoid system – a signaling network found within every mammalian species on Earth. It features two cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2 receptors, which THC and CBD “dock” with to provide their therapeutic effects. THC, the mind-altering ingredient in cannabis, has been shown to increase appetite, reduce muscle control problems, and reduce nausea, pain, and inflammation. CBD doesn’t cause a psychoactive effect like THC, but it has been shown to reduce pain and inflammation, as well as be effective in killing certain cancer cells, controlling epileptic seizures, and treating mental illness.
To date, marijuana has not been recognized or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food or medicine, but the agency has approved some cannabis-based medications for distribution in the U.S. In addition, over half the states and territories in the U.S. have legalized marijuana for medical use, as long as patients have registered to obtain their state’s medical cannabis “card”.
How Long Has Medical Marijuana Been Around?
Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes since at least the time of ancient China. Cannabis and its therapeutic benefits, specifically gout, rheumatism, constipation, and senility, were first described in ancient Chinese texts. Chinese Emperor Shennong, who was also a pharmacologist, wrote about using cannabis for treatment purposes in a book published in 2737 BC.
With regard to the United States’ pharmacological system, medical cannabis was long included as a viable treatment option. It wasn’t until 1937 when, in defiance of the American Medical Association (AMA), the U.S. passed a federal law banning cannabis. According to Americans for Safe Access, from that point on cannabis was only legally available to a small number of patients through a federally organized program called the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access research program. In effect, the IND program allowed patients to receive up to nine pounds of cannabis from the government each year, in 1976.
Despite the IND program, the vast majority of Americans found themselves shut out of access to medical marijuana. Then, in the late 90’s, voters began to demand legalized medical marijuana. California was the first state to establish such a program with a voter initiative that passed in 1996. In the 20 years that have followed the historic passing of California’s proposition 215, other states followed California’s lead, establishing medical marijuana laws that allow patients access to legal cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation.
Today, 29 states and the District of Columbia allow patients to legally obtain and use medical marijuana, bringing potential access to over half of all American citizens. Despite the fact that cannabis continues to remain federally illegal, in October of 2009 the U.S. Department of Justice announced that they would not pursue medical marijuana participants or distributors who comply with state laws.
Where Is Medical Marijuana Legal?
Medical marijuana laws are typically created in one of two ways: either through a voter backed initiative like in California or through a state’s legislative body as in the case of Pennsylvania. While voter initiatives must be approved to be added to ballots only on election years, state lawmakers can introduce a medical marijuana bill whenever the state legislatures are in session.
So far, 29 states have established medical marijuana programs. These states include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. In addition, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico allow medical marijuana for patients.
Additional states, while not offering comprehensive medical marijuana programs, have approved marijuana- based “low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD)” products for limited medical purposes. These states include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Alternatively, CBD oil products that are derived from hemp are legal to purchase and use in all 50 states without a visit to a doctor, a medical marijuana card, or paying a state enrollment fee. Made with naturally high-CBD, low-THC hemp, these products contain the same levels of CBD as those sold in medical marijuana dispensaries, but because they are sold as supplements, they are 100% legal in the U.S.
How Do You Get Legal Medical Marijuana?
Medical marijuana is only legally available in the states and territories that have established medical marijuana programs. The conditions and ailments that are approved for medical marijuana treatment vary, so you’ll need to first determine whether your condition is included on your respective state’s list of qualifying conditions. For up to date information on state medical marijuana laws and included conditions, visit our education page.
The rules and requirements for acquiring legal medical marijuana also fluctuate widely between each individual state and territory.
In general, you’ll need to visit your doctor who, if feeling that you and your condition would benefit from medical marijuana, will write you a recommendation.
Because the FDA does not consider marijuana an approved medication, your doctor cannot prescribe it and your insurance will not cover it. Your doctor’s recommendation, however, authorizes you to move forward in the approval process.
In some states, like California, a signed doctor’s recommendation (and a state photo ID) is enough to gain access to medical marijuana dispensaries (authorized marijuana distributors) and offers some protections for patients when purchasing and transporting their marijuana.
Other states will require you to obtain a state issued medical marijuana “card”. Often this will include being placed in the state’s respective record system. You will then be allowed to buy marijuana from a state approved dispensary or (in some states) delivery service. Depending on your state of residence, there may be an enrollment fee needed to apply for a medical marijuana card, costing up to $200.
Once you have access to a marijuana distributor, you’ll have the option between a number of different options for using legal medical cannabis. Dried marijuana flower is still the most popular form, but a growing number of states have banned smokeable marijuana in their programs. Other choices include tincture sprays, capsules, vapes, concentrated extracts, and edibles. For those looking for external applications, balms, salves, and lotions can be rubbed directly into the muscles, joints, and skin for focused relief. There are even dermal patches that can be placed on the skin for delayed release through the day.
What are the Benefits of Using Cannabis as Medicine?
While the benefits of medical marijuana have been studied since the 1940s, the most groundbreaking discoveries about cannabis and its therapeutic effects have only emerged in the last decade or so as interest in the beneficial properties of medical cannabis has grown.
Recent studies suggest that cannabis, or certain compounds within it, have the potential to:
Reduce the number and severity of debilitating epileptic seizures
Reduce muscle spasms experienced by those with multiple sclerosis
Kill or limit the growth of cancer cells
Provide anxiety relief and reduce nightmares for those with post-traumatic stress disorder
In addition, cannabis has been shown to mollify both pain and nausea, making it a potentially powerful therapeutic for numerous medical conditions, including patients having to undergo chemotherapy or traditional AIDS/HIV treatments.
More than 20,000 modern peer-reviewed scientific articles on the pharmacology of cannabis and its cannabinoids have been published by medical journals, further confirming the medicinal properties of marijuana.
Biotech firms in the U.S. and internationally are currently pursuing the development of cannabis-based medicines aimed at a number of conditions, including epilepsy, psoriasis and eczema, and multiple sclerosis, by isolating specific cannabinoids within the cannabis plant for focused relief.
What Are the Different Types of Marijuana?
When researching the different types of marijuana, you’ll see they’re broken out into two major strains: Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa. These taxonomical classifications, established in the 18th century after scientists recorded differences in the strains’ structure and resin production, vary in appearance, flowering time, yields, and flavor.
Many cannabis users and professionals within the medical marijuana industry allege that the two strains distinctly vary in the types of primary effects and symptom relief they offer a user. Indica strains, it’s commonly accepted, tend to induce physically sedating, relaxing, and full-body calming effects, while sativas are thought to produce an uplifting, energetic and cerebral reaction. In general, patients managing chronic pain, muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, nausea and fibromyalgia prefer the full body effects of indica. Sativa’s uplifting effects are often a better option for patients experiencing fatigue, ADHD, depression, or other types of mood disorders.
Some scientists claim, however, that the widely accepted variability in effects between the two strains is based on presentiments only. This placebo effect, the taxonomists argue, are not rooted in reality but stem from the preconceived expectations of the user. It’s true that no scientific study have established that indica and sativa induce varying effects and we do know that not every strain affects every patient in the same way.
What Are the Different Methods for Consuming Marijuana?
Smoking has historically been the most common method for consuming marijuana. Devices like rolling papers, hand pipes, water pipes and hookahs are used to ignite the dry herb, releasing its cannabinoids and other natural compounds. With smoking, the cannabinoids reach the bloodstream and elicit effects very quickly.
Cannabis material can also be infused into various foods to make medical marijuana edibles. Popular among those who prefer to avoid smoking, edibles are now available in an array of food products, including chocolate bars, chews, and cookies. Because edibles are metabolized, their effects take longer to kick in and can last several hours. In general, edibles provide more body relaxing effects.
Health-conscious marijuana consumers commonly elect to vaporize their cannabis products. Vaporizers use convection heating to heat up the dry herb or wax concentrates until they reach their boiling point, releasing the cannabis material’s cannabinoids and other natural compounds as a clean vapor. By inhaling the pure vapor, the compounds promptly reach the bloodstream and effects are felt as instantaneously as when smoking. However, because vaporizing doesn’t involve combustion, it eliminates the exposure to all of smoking’s toxins, carcinogens, and other harmful chemicals that can damage the throat and lungs.
Are There Any Tips or Considerations Regarding Safety with Marijuana?
While cannabis is thought to be safe, there are some preventative safety measures you can take to lower your side of adverse events.
Cannabis users may need to take some precautions because of the euphoric side effects that some marijuana products can elicit. Products containing THC can temporarily cause drowsiness, as well as impaired memory and reaction time. It’s therefore recommended that those using marijuana not operate machinery or drive a vehicle after consuming cannabis.
Marijuana consumers also need to be careful about purchasing products that come from cannabis that has been treated by pesticides. Pesticide residue has been discovered in cannabis products ranging from flower to concentrates to edibles. The danger with pesticide residue is that it can make its way into your bloodstream, increasing the risk of some health problems. With the legal cannabis industry being relatively young, many regulations, including those regarding testing standards, are still being fleshed out. Check to see whether an ISO-certified laboratory has tested any cannabis products you purchase.
If you’re taking other medications, it’s a good idea to consider potential drug interactions. Marijuana may affect blood sugar levels and lower blood pressure, so people taking drugs for diabetes or hypotension should discuss cannabis use with their healthcare professional. Additionally, marijuana may increase the risk of bleeding when taken with other drugs, herbs and supplements that also increase the risk of bleeding.