Medical marijuana is derived from the cannabis plant and can help treat conditions such as anxiety, arthritis, epilepsy, and cancer-related nausea. Its many forms include CBD (cannabidiol) oils and edibles and products containing both THC and CBD. Learn more about medical marijuana, which conditions are approved for it, and how to get a medical marijuana card in your state.
What Are Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol (CBD)? Everything You Need to Know
The cannabis plant, from which marijuana is derived, is often smoked for recreational purposes. But people are increasingly using marijuana to treat medical conditions — and this medical marijuana is not always smoked. It comes in many forms:
- Marijuana cigarettes containing the cannabinoids (chemical compounds) tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or cannabidiol (CBD), or both THC and CBD
- CBD oils, edibles, tinctures, creams, and capsules
- Cannabis-derived pharmaceutical products approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Studies suggest that the medical use of marijuana may help treat the following conditions or help alleviate the following symptoms: (1)
- Anxiety, particularly social anxiety disorder
- Chronic pain
Some research has suggested that the cannabinoids in marijuana could also be useful in managing these conditions: (2,3,4,5,6,7)
- HIV/AIDS like Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
According to a 2017 report from the National Academies of the Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering (NASME), the strongest scientific evidence so far has been found in support of using marijuana for chronic pain, cancer-related nausea and vomiting, and MS-related spasticity. (1)
This NASME report, one of the largest of its kind, looked at more than 10,000 studies published since 1999.
How Does Marijuana Affect the Body?
It depends on whether THC or CBD is the cannabinoid at work. They produce similar effects, but there are differences in intensity because they each affect a different neural pathway.
THC is thought to engage with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which helps regulate physiological functioning. THC is similar to a chemical that’s present in this system, and when these two chemicals meet, the similarity allows THC to exert an influence on the body and brain in ways that alter coordination, memory, decision-making, appetite, and mood.
The endocannabinoid system also helps regulate gastrointestinal functions, and this may explain why medical marijuana seems to help digestive disorders like IBS.
CBD, scientists think, affects the brain because of the way it interacts with the neurological pathways that regulate serotonin, the hormone that regulates anxiety, pain, nausea, and appetite.
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How Can Marijuana Help Opioid Use Disorder?
Some individuals use marijuana instead of addictive opioids to treat pain. In these cases, marijuana may actually be responsible for a decrease in the use of — and deaths from — these prescription drugs.
A study published in May 2018 in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that prescriptions for opioids decreased in states that have medical marijuana laws. Researchers looked at Medicare data from 2010 to 2015 and found that states with active dispensaries saw 3.742 million fewer daily doses of opioids filled by pharmacies. (8)
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Another study, published in October 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that states with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8 percent lower annual overdose rate than states without such laws. (9)
Some states, like Pennsylvania and New York, now consider opioid use disorder as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use. New York, for example, allows people who qualify to use medical marijuana instead of opioids to treat pain.
What Is Cannabidiol and How Will It Affect Me?
Cannabidiol is the cannabinoid in marijuana that, along with interacting with the brain’s serotonin system, may also help relax and calm you, but it doesn’t alter your perception or affect physical reactions too much. CBD may be particularly effective for: (10)
- Anxiety disorders
- Nausea and vomiting
- Psychotic disorders
- Non-cancer-related pain
- Sleep problems (Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome)
Staci Gruber, MD , is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, which is researching the neurological effects of medical marijuana use.
In a large study that she’s conducting on the use of medical marijuana, Dr. Gruber says the second most commonly reported use of medical marijuana among subjects is for anxiety. She’s also about to begin an FDA-approved clinical trial of a CBD sublingual (administered under the tongue) tincture, consisting of CBD in a coconut oil base, for the treatment of anxiety. (Tinctures are medicines — in this case CBD — dissolved in a liquid like alcohol or glycerine.)
Indeed, anecdotal evidence points to the effectiveness of CBD as an anxiety and stress reducer, as well as a sleep aid. Eric*, a busy sales executive in San Francisco, has been sleeping more soundly since he started using a high-CBD, low-THC product via a vaporizer three months ago for work-related stress and anxiety.
“The quality of my sleep is better, I’m sleeping longer and deeper, and I now have no problem falling and staying asleep,” he says. “It has changed my life.”
In addition to being a potentially powerful treatment for anxiety disorders, a growing body of research is suggesting that CBD may help treat symptoms of neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease . (11,12)
Scientists think that CBD acts in yet to be determined ways that protect the brain against inflammation and oxidative stress. (13)
Research also points to CBD as a potential treatment for psychosis and schizophrenia . (14,15)
Medical marijuana may also be effective in palliative care. In one Canadian case study, published in 2013 in Case Reports in Oncology, physicians reported that CBD oil, administered orally, was a successful treatment for a 14-year-old patient in palliative care with an aggressive form of leukemia. (16)
How To Get a Medical Marijuana Card in Your State
Medical marijuana is a common treatment for people with chronic pain or other conditions. While marijuana use remains illegal on the federal level, 29 states and Washington D.C. presently allow the use of medical marijuana by those who have a qualifying condition.
The term “medical cannabis” describes the derivatives of the cannabis sativa plant. Two of its active compounds are cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD has several benefits but does not cause you to feel high. The intoxication, or high, associated with marijuana comes from THC.
If your state allows medical marijuana for certain conditions, here’s what you need to know when it comes to getting a medical marijuana card.
Marijuana as Medicine
Medical marijuana is nothing new, as research has been carried out over decades to see how it can be used to treat various conditions. THC, in particular, has shown to have several benefits when it comes to treating nausea and lack of appetite in cancer patients.
Medicines derived from marijuana have been approved in several places around the world, including the U.S., Europe, and Canada. This includes pills, sprays, and liquids that contain THC. So far, researchers agree that these kinds of medicines are more effective than the whole marijuana plant when it comes to medicinal purposes. This is because the marijuana has to be purified before it can be used to make medication.
The most common use of marijuana as medicine is for pain relief. While medical marijuana isn’t strong enough to replace painkillers prescribed after surgery, it has proven helpful in alleviating chronic aches and pains, especially those related to aging. Medical cannabis isn’t as addictive as opioids and works as an alternative to ibuprofen or paracetamol.
Marijuana is used to help cancer patients cope with nausea and vomiting. It also helps stimulate the appetite of these patients along with those who have conditions like AIDS and anorexia.
The laws surrounding medical marijuana vary from state to state, including which conditions qualify for its use. In general, states that permit medicinal marijuana allow its use for treating:
- HIV and AIDS
- Crohn’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease
- Epilepsy and seizures
- Chronic pain
- Severe nausea
- Parkinson’s disease
Depending on your state, your primary care physician might recommend trying medical marijuana if you have chronic symptoms that impact your quality of life. This includes symptoms that prevent you from carrying out daily activities or that threaten your safety and mental or physical health.
Getting a Medical Cannabis Card
The first step to getting a medical marijuana card is to talk to your primary care physician. Your doctor will determine if your condition requires the use of medicinal marijuana and will discuss any possible risks or side effects with you. Once you have your doctor’s approval, you will be able to move forward with the process.
While the process varies by state, most will require you to sign up for the state’s medical marijuana registry, which you can likely do online. Part of the registration process will require you to provide proof that your doctor has approved medical cannabis to manage your symptoms.
To complete your registration, your state may ask you to create an online account where you can submit your application and doctor’s approval. Creating an account also saves your information in case you need to renew your medical marijuana card in the future. If you are applying for a card with a caregiver, your caregiver will also need to enter in their credentials.
You’ll likely have to pay the fee for your medical marijuana card. The price varies by state, but you should be able to make your payment online. Once you have your card, you can then buy medical marijuana.
Where To Get Medicinal Marijuana
Having a medical marijuana card allows you to buy marijuana from approved dispensaries in your state. Depending on the state, having a card can allow you to buy products with higher levels of THC or buy larger quantities of cannabis products. Depending on your condition and the state, you may even be permitted to grow marijuana plants in your home for personal use.
Having a card lets you buy medicinal marijuana in the form of:
- Oral solutions
- Topical creams or applications
- Oils for vaporizing
- Dried out leaves for smoking
Once you have your medicinal marijuana products, you can either administer them yourself or your caregiver can help you if this individual is listed as your caregiver on your medical marijuana card. How long it takes to feel the effects depends on the form of the marijuana and the severity of your symptoms.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: “How to apply for a Colorado medical marijuana card.”
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: “Getting Medical Marijuana.”
Department of Cannabis Control California: “Medicinal cannabis.”
Harvard Health Publishing: “Medical Marijuana.”
Mayo Clinic: “Medical marijuana.”
National Institute on Drug Abuse: “Is marijuana safe and effective as medicine?”