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What Exactly Is Medical Marijuana?

Everything you need to know.
PHOTO: Pixabay

Marijuana comes from the hemp plant Cannabis sativa, and people have used it for recreational and medicinal purposes. While many of us know its recreational purpose, the medicinal purpose of marijuana eludes a good number of people because of what we’ve heard about the substance. Let’s tackle these hearsays first to get them out of the way:

1. It’s said to lower our IQ up to 8 points.

But that conclusion is based on an unreliable report from Duke University in 2012. It’s unreliable since its methodology is flawed and its conclusion, premature. By having a larger sample of respondents and taking into account alcohol use, cigarette use, and education, a 2014 study from the University College of London debunks the Duke research. It has found that there is “no relationship between cannabis use and lower IQ”—this includes heavy marijuana use. (FYI, the University College of London study has found that alcohol use is strongly associated with IQ decline.)

2. Marijuana is said to damage the brain.

Now there’s a yes and no answer to this. A highly potent form of pot called “skunk” may damage the corpus callosum (the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres) and cause psychosis, as suggested by a 2015 study by King’s College London. Paola Dazzan, one of the neurobiologists involved in that research, explained, “What we can say is if it’s high potency, and if you smoke frequently, your brain is different from the brain of someone who smokes normal cannabis, and from someone who doesn’t smoke cannabis at all.” And here’s the thing: People who smoke low potent pot (aka hash) aren’t more likely to have psychosis than people who’ve never tried cannabis.

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3. Lastly, marijuana is said to be addictive.

So we shouldn’t even use it in the first place. Addiction is a severe case of marijuana use disorder, which is associated with dependence. But there’s a difference between cannabis dependence and addiction. The former has to do with experiencing negative outcomes when you’ve stopped using the drug—or any drug; the latter with abuse (continued use that leads to problems in work/school/at home or to dangerous situations), tolerance (the need for a higher dose to get the same effect), and withdrawal symptoms when the drug is not takenBut addiction in the case of marijuana is rare. Most users can stop smoking pot the same way we can stop eating chocolates or pizza and not lose ourselves.

Here’s what you need to know about substance use disorder: Drug-related problems are a strong indicator that something in that user’s life is out of control. Marijuana abusers are also more likely to smoke tobacco and binge on alcohol than non-abusers. Anything can be abused—think alcohol, sex, or coffee—if the person is already inclined to do so, which would mean he’d need some help.


So what is medical marijuana?

Medical marijuana is used to treat health problems, not to get high. Cannabis being used for medicine can actually be traced back as early as 2737 BC in China, according to Mitch Earleywine, a psychology professor at the State University of New York and author of Understanding Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence. It was a popular medicine for pain relief in Asia, including India and the Middle East, and Africa. But because of prevalent morphine addiction in the U.S. in the 1800s, people’s attitude towards drugs, including marijuana, changed.

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Nevertheless, that marijuana can have therapeutic effects is grounded in science. The plant has more than a hundred active ingredients called cannabinoids. And cannabinoids have been promising in basic experiments on pain. Peripheral nerves that detect pain have several receptors for cannabinoids, which have been found to block peripheral nerve pain.

The two main cannabinoids in marijuana are tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol—or simply THC and CBD, respectively. THC is responsible for the high, which recreational pot smokers want. In countries where it’s legal, some medical marijuana has been grown to have less of the THC but the same amount of CBD so that users won’t get high when they take the drug as a pill, oil, or oral spray. Even so, THC can treat some medical problems. It targets the CB1 receptor, a cannabinoid receptor in the nervous system, liver, kidney, and lungs. And when the CB1 receptor is activated, pain is toned down.

Medical marijuana has been used to treat a range of painful conditions. Some of the most painful ones it’s been used for include multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, and cancer—and with cancer, there’s chemotherapy.


Medical marijuana and multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a potentially disabling disease of the brain and the spine that millions of people across the globe suffer from. People diagnosed with MS have damaged nerve fiber protective coating (myelin). To put it another way, their immune systems end up attacking the myelin instead of viruses or parasites. Depending on where the damage is, MS can affect their ability to move, to defecate, or to see or breathe. They feel weak, they experience tingling pain in different parts of their bodies—even when they only move their eyes—and they can also suffer from depression and epilepsy.

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Research has found that cannabinoids like THC and CBD in medical marijuana are effective in helping patients manage MS symptoms. And symptom management is significant in improving every patient’s well-being and functionality. Researchers at the American Academy of Neurology saw that medical marijuana (in the form of pills and oral sprays) reduces stiffness and muscle spasms in MS. One study done in 2011 used THC and CBD from cloned Cannabis sativa chemovars, available as mouth sprays, to treat MS patients. This resulted in patients reporting that their severe symptoms relating to their contracted muscles have been reduced to the point that they could do their daily activities. A study back in 2005 tested the same thing on 368 patients, and researchers found that the cannabis-based spray reduced MS symptoms like neuropathic pain, spasticity, muscle spasms, and sleep disturbances.

Medical marijuana and epilepsy

In 2014, 14-year-old Oliver Miller helped legalize medical marijuana in New York. He suffers from hundreds of seizures every day, owing to a stroke he had in utero that led to a brain stem injury. His mom Missy Miller has devoted herself to fight for the legalization of medical marijuana—which did happen. This is because she’s learned that certain strains of marijuana can cut down seizures in people who have epilepsy.

Oliver’s not alone in his suffering. Kids all over the world also have to endure epilepsy, even as they take heavy (and expensive) drugs that don’t always relieve them. In the Philippines, we have someone like Sachi Ballesteros whose left brain didn’t develop due to prenatal stroke, so he’s frequently attacked by seizures. His dad Romeo Ballesteros researched on possible treatments and found that marijuana could relieve his suffering. (In fact we have the Philippine Cannabis Compassion Society that advocates the legalization and use of medical marijuana.)

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News broke in 2013 that medical marijuana could dramatically reduce seizures—and this, other medicines couldn’t do. Research in the following years has given evidence that medical marijuana is an effective treatment for patients who have a treatment-resistant form of epilepsy. One study, conducted by neurologists at New York University Langone Medical Center and published in The Lancet Neurology in 2015, treated 162 patients with an extract of 99 percent CBD as an add-on to their medication. After being monitored for 12 weeks, the patients’ motor seizures reduced dramatically. Two percent of those patients became seizure-free.

The NYU Langone Medical Center study does have its limitations: It’s possible that the medications just worked over time, and it’s not because of cannabis; and it was an open-label trial (patients knew what they were taking), which means the study was highly prone to placebo effects. Even then, Orrin Devinsky, one of the neurologists involved in the study, states: “Based on the evidence that we have, if a child has tried multiple standard drugs and the epilepsy is still severe and impairing quality of life, then the risks of trying CBD are low to modest at best.”

Medical marijuana and cancer and chemotherapy

Earlier it was said that in medical marijuana, the THC level is reduced to avoid psychoactive effects. But studies have suggested that THC has anti-cancer properties. THC caused the death of brain cancer cells, according to research at Complutense University in Spain in 2009. The same researchers tested the THC’s effect on breast cancer cells—human tumors introduced to mice—and found that there was an anti-tumor response through the THC.

In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the U.S. confirmed that cannabis offers benefits to some cancer patients. “Recent animal studies have shown that marijuana extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others,” it reports. Believe it or not, some cancer patients were prescribed cannabis oil by their oncologists, and their cancer was eliminated.

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Cancer patients who need treatment and can afford it go through chemotherapy. And usually chemotherapy has debilitating effects like fatigue, bone pain, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, and depression. Some patients feel so weak they can hardly stand up (chemo inadvertently attacks some healthy cells too). They take different drugs and supplements to treat their various ailments, but the medication doesn’t always help them feel any better. Until medical marijuana comes into picture. Some of those bearing the effects of cancer or chemotherapy feel brand new after taking cannabis. So much so that they’ve ditched all the old prescription drugs.

Side effects

Like any other medicine, medical marijuana has side effects too. Some MS patients who’ve taken medical marijuana experienced dizziness, diarrhea, fatigue, nausea, and headaches. Others even have adverse effects from it like disorientation, confusion, and hallucination.


Cancer patients in a 2013 research published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine experienced no significant side effects except for memory loss in patients with prolonged use.

As for the kids who take cannabis to relieve them from their symptoms, it’s hard to say at this point how the drug will affect them in the long run. Their brains are still developing; right now they have a good quality of life.

It’s important to note that one shouldn’t self-medicate with marijuana. Scientists study the right dose to achieve its medicinal value.

Medical marijuana in the Philippines

In the Philippines, we have a bill regulating the medical use of marijuana: House Bill 4477. However, it hasn’t been passed in the Senate yet. So for now, possessing marijuana, even for medical purposes, is illegal (Republic Act 9165, Section 11). Anyone caught with at least 10 grams of marijuana resin or oil can be imprisoned for life or be charged P500,000 to P10 million.

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The Department of Health is open to have medical marijuana as a viable option for treatment, but it states that it still needs guidelines for regulation and a go signal from the Dangerous Drugs Board.

It’s possible that in the next few years medical marijuana will be legal. President Duterte has said that he’s for the legalization of the drug “because it really is an ingredient of modern medicine now. There are medicines right now being developed or already in the market that contain marijuana.”

The future

Medical marijuana has potential in treating health conditions apart from MS, epilepsy, and cancer. Currently we have limited knowledge of the drug. Marijuana has about a hundred cannabinoids, and thus far scientists only know about two. Yet already it’s helped numerous patients live and lead better lives. It’s then possible other cannabinoids will help treat more ailments.

Research on the effects of medical marijuana is still limited for obvious reasons: Possessing and using marijuana is illegal in several countries. Plus, the medical research in general is expensive. Think 97 million dollars (in the U.S.). Funding for palliative care (what medical marijuana treatment is since it mostly manages symptoms) gets little support compared to actual disease-modifying treatments.

Amid limitations, scientists are studying the effect of marijuana on HIV and AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and mental health disorders like PTSD. With reliable positive findings, more people will push for the legalization of medical marijuana and other countries will eventually follow suit in legalizing a medicine that helps lives.

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