The potential medicinal properties of marijuana have been the subject of substantive and heated debate. Currently 23 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana use, although use of the drug can have harmful effects in some instances. It is not recommended for medical or recreational use until research proves its safety.
Marijuana is a mood-altering drug which can be habit forming. While popularly thought to be a benign drug, it can have adverse effects on memory, learning, perception, behavior and functioning. Marijuana can be harmful to the brain that is not fully mature, particularly in areas related to mood, reward, and executive function (e.g., cognitive flexibility). The effects on unborn children during pregnancy is unknown, but studies on adolescents have shown significant neurodevelopmental changes in both gray and white matter.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director, Dr. Nora D. Volkow states,
"It is important to alert the public that using marijuana in the teen years brings health, social, and academic risk. Physicians in particular can play a role in conveying to families that early marijuana use can interfere with crucial social and developmental milestones and can impair cognitive development."
Other health risks include particulate damage to the lungs cause by smoking resulting in respiratory problems such as bronchitis and chronic cough. Impaired motor skills increase probability of personal accidental injuries and injuries to others, especially when driving under the influence. Low-blood pressure, heart palpitations and nausea are a few common side effects.
Originally, the American Medical Association (AMA) opposed the regulation of cannabis back in the 1940s. Doctors did not want studies of its potential medicinal benefits to be limited. Later, under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, marijuana was classified as a Schedule I drug. Examples of other Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, and cocaine. Schedule I drugs are believed to have no medicinal benefit.
Although cannabis did not have any medicinal use, the U.S. government distributed it to patients on a limited case-by-case basis under the Compassionate Use Investigational New Drug (IND) program. Research of past participants in the IND program between 1978 and 1992 has suggested that there may be some therapeutic potential in cannabinoids, the active chemicals in cannabis that cause the “stoned” effects throughout the body. The main active cannabinoid in cannabis is delta-9-THC. Another active cannabinoid is cannabidiol, which may relieve pain and lower inflammation without causing the "high" of delta-9-THC. These findings have encouraged recent clinical research on the therapeutic potential of marijuana as well as state initiatives to decriminalize marijuana for medical use.
Cannabinoids may be useful in treating very specific terminal patients, but there are some serious risks associated with use, especially for children and young adults. Since it is not known if the benefits outweigh the known and unknown risks, use of medical marijuana for management of chronic conditions or recreational marijuana is not recommended.
Holistic treatments are available to treat many conditions and these therapies do not have the risks of marijuana products. Please consider all the facts before using any drug for medical or recreational use. Talk to a health care professional for more information or about personal questions you may have about maintaining good health practices without the use of marijuana.
Constance Scharff is the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research for Cliffside Malibu. She is also the coauthor of the Amazon.com bestselling book Ending Addiction for Good with Richard Taite.