These are interesting times we live in.
As I write this, medical marijuana use is now legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia. And it’s fully legal to use it recreationally in nine states and D.C.
Accordingly, the number of seniors who use marijuana has jumped 250 percent over the last decade. And believe it or not, I recently became a prescriber of medicinal marijuana myself.
But let me lead with an important disclaimer: This is not a political discussion. I’ll leave the debate over legality to the pundits…where it belongs.
As a doctor, however, I do have quite a few opinions on the subject. I’m also familiar with the extensive research on the medical benefits of this controversial plant.
And yes, those benefits are significant, and very real.
Whatever your opinions may be on medical marijuana, the facts still matter—especially when the powers-that-be are so committed to outright ignoring them.
Cannabis takes on every cancer symptom in the book
For one group of people in particular, unrestricted access to medical marijuana (or cannabis) could prove life-changing.
I’m talking, of course, about cancer patients. And while it’s the marijuana application the general public is most familiar with, I’d bet that few people realize just how powerful cannabis is against cancer’s most notorious symptoms.
In fact, a recent study from Israel shows that marijuana is an effective remedy for nausea and vomiting, sleep problems, pain, as well as anxiety and depression in cancer patients.
This six-month study included patients with cancers of the breast, lung, pancreas, colon, and lymphoma, among others. It was also heavily skewed toward advanced cancers, with more than half of the subjects suffering from stage 4 diagnoses.
Nonetheless, 60 percent of the subjects had great success with medical marijuana treatment, reporting significant improvement in their overall condition¾without any serious side effects. 1
- More than 90 percent of patients saw an improvement in nausea and vomiting.
- Just over 87 percent saw improvements in sleep problems and restlessness.
- Just under 85 percent saw improvements in depression.
- Roughly 82 percent saw improvements in itching and headaches.
Success rates varied according to the type of cancer. (There were 17 different cancers represented in total.) Patients with renal cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma benefitted the most from treatment. But patients with brain tumors, multiple myeloma, and cervical cancers also fared well.
Patients with prostate cancer and melanoma didn’t achieve quite the same response. But with success rates of 53.4 percent and 31.2 percent, respectively, those are still pretty good numbers.
Still, the most promising takeaway, to me, is marijuana’s uniquely powerful effect on pain.
Pain scores plummet
At the beginning of the study, more than half of the patients reported a “very high” level of pain. And yet, after six months of treatment, that number dropped to just 4.6 percent.
This also meant that using cannabis enabled the study patients to lower their use of drugs for pain and other cancer symptoms—including fever reducers, sedatives, steroids, and of course, opioids.
In fact, nearly 10 percent of patients were able to significantly decrease their doses of these dangerous, highly-addictive painkillers. While 36 percent were able to stop taking them completely.
And if that doesn’t worry Big Pharma, well… it should.
A “green” solution to the opioid crisis
In another Israeli study, researchers surveyed nearly 3,000 patients age 65 or older who received medical cannabis prescriptions—more than 60 percent of which were for pain.
Ultimately, six months of treatment cut 93 percent of patients’ pain scores in half—from a severe eight on a ten-point scale, down to a four. What’s more, nearly 60 percent of patients reported dramatic improvements in quality of life.
Overall, 70 percent of patients reported moderate to significant improvement in their condition. And nearly one in five were able to reduce their opioid use during the study period, if not ditch the drugs altogether.
Once again, marijuana delivered this benefit without any major adverse effects (the most commonly reported were dizziness and dry mouth). This stands in stark contrast to the devastating risks associated with opioids.
This isn’t the “grass” you smoked in high school
So, as you can see, medical marijuana is becoming a big business for good reason. But it’s important to note that this isn’t the same kind of pot you may have smoked in high school or warned your kids to stay away from.
For instance, the patients in the studies above used at least four different strains of cannabis—each with a different concentration of THC to CBD.
THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are prominent cannabinoids, which are the active phytochemicals in the marijuana plant. But structurally, they’re different, and so are their effects on your body.
Most notably, THC is the cannabinoid typically credited with getting you “high.” But it can also carry unpleasant side effects like anxiety and paranoia. CBD, on the other hand, appears to temper this effect. But both are ultimately responsible for marijuana’s impressive range of benefits.
I took an intensive course to learn how to prescribe cannabis. In it, I learned how to get the proportion of THC to CBD just right so a patient can get the best effects.
With the right dose, you’ll get the therapeutic benefits without getting the high. (In fact, that’s the promise of THC-free CBD oil, which has been gaining popularity—and a lot of my patients use it.)
There are also many different delivery methods to choose from, including:
- edibles (which come in pretty much any type of food imaginable—especially baked goods, candy, lozenges, etc. Though, obviously these aren’t the forms I typically recommend.)
- vaping (which is like smoking but with water vapor)
- tinctures (extracted in alcohol)
Your doctor or the staff at a medical marijuana dispensary can help you decide which method would is for you.
New industry—same old supervillains at work
Clearly, marijuana has massive potential from a medicinal standpoint. It’s also relatively inexpensive—for now. But it seems as if there are already powerful forces working behind the scenes. In fact, a single mysterious entity has been buying up all the strains of cannabis out there and slapping a patent on them.3
This does not bode well for a number of reasons.
For one thing, we still don’t know just how much this plant is capable of doing. Medical cannabis research only recently started gaining traction. There’s a lot yet to figure out.
If one company owns patents on all of the many varieties of cannabis, it gives them complete control. Not only over the direction of this research but also over any product development that follows.
Call me crazy, but this scheme absolutely reeks of Big Pharma…After all, marijuana is already America’s second largest cash crop (after wheat). So obviously, there’s a lot of money to be made from growing and selling it.
That’s why I believe that it’s only a matter of time before marijuana becomes legal federally. And once that happens, there’s no telling what the landscape will look like—what will be available, how much it will cost, or what hoops you’ll have to jump through to access it.
In the meantime, though, all of those factors depend largely on your location.
How to get started…
Unfortunately, I can’t list all the resources for every state where medical marijuana is legal. Not only are there more cropping up every day, but legislation is moving so quickly, this information could literally change overnight.
But doing a little internet research on your state’s medical marijuana laws and procedures is a good place to start. And your primary care physician may be able to point you in the right direction, too. Either way, there’s no reason to let marijuana’s stigma as a “street drug” keep you from seriously considering it as a treatment option.
The bottom line is that there’s a lot more to this plant than naysayers would lead you to believe. There are 60 known cannabinoids and over 400 chemical compounds derived from marijuana. And we’re just beginning to scratch the surface in researching them.
Yes, medicinal marijuana use is still far from an exact science, and it often takes a little bit of trial and error to get it just right. But if the medical community would put half of the effort into cannabis research that they do into researching prescription drugs, it could save countless patients an enormous amount of pain and suffering.
In my line of work, the goal is always to treat patients effectively using the most natural means possible. Nothing fits that bill better than marijuana—and if it means fewer people rely on addictive, side-effect laden drugs, then as far as I’m concerned, full legalization can’t come soon enough.
There’s more to marijuana than meets the eye
Cancer symptoms and chronic pain are easily two of the most well-researched targets of cannabis treatment. But they’re not the only conditions that medical marijuana can help with.
The criteria varies by state, but here’s a quick list of conditions that cannabis has been scientifically shown to help:
- Multiple sclerosis. Specifically, marijuana can help with the painful muscle spasms associated with MS.4
- Parkinson’s disease. Similarly, studies show cannabis can ease tremors in patients with this neurodegenerative disease.5
- Glaucoma. Marijuana cannabinoids lower intraocular eye pressure—the driving force behind this painful and potentially blinding eye disease. (Though unfortunately the effect is only temporary.)
- Epilepsy. Research suggests that marijuana could be an effective option for patients with treatment-resistant seizures.6
- Anxiety. Research shows low doses of marijuana have a relaxing effect.7
- PTSD. This is currently one of the most common applications of medical marijuana, with at least one huge, well-funded study in the works to assess its efficacy in U.S. veterans.8
- Alzheimer’s disease. Believe it or not, evidence suggests that THC can slow the formation of amyloid plaque—a key feature of Alzheimer’s development.9
- Inflammatory bowel disease. The research is still new, but early studies suggest that cannabinoids may be able to strengthen the intestinal lining and reduce gut permeability.10
- Diabetes and obesity. While you might think marijuana’s appetite-stimulating properties would be a disaster for your weight, research shows the opposite is true. Marijuana smokers actually have smaller waists and lower levels of fasting insulin—a sign of better blood sugar metabolism.11
- Bar-Lev Schleider L, et al. Eur J Intern Med. 2018 Mar;49:37-43.
- Abuhasira R, et al. Eur J Intern Med. 2018 Mar;49:44-50.
- Lotan I, et al. Clin Neuropharmacol. 2014 Mar-Apr;37(2):41-4.
- Devinsky O, et al. Lancet Neurol. 2016 Mar;15(3):270-8.
- E Childs et al. Drug Alcohol Depend 177, 136-144. 2017 May 30.
- Eubanks LM, et al. Mol Pharm. 2006 Nov-Dec;3(6):773-7.
- Alhamoruni A, et al. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2010 Oct;335(1):92-102.
- Penner EA, et al. Am J Med. 2013 Jul;126(7):583-9.