While for decades marijuana has been an illegal recreational drug for people, young and old alike, we are seeing today our society’s slow embrace of its other, still controversial use: as a medical treatment. In early December last year, the first medicinal marijuana dispensary was opened here in New Jersey. The Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair sells three different strains of marijuana to anyone who possesses an ID card issued by the state Department of Health and Senior Services. This comes just two years after Governor Corzine first signed a law which legalized medicinal marijuana in the state for qualified patients.
Medical cannabis (the genus from which the two species Cannabis indica and Cannabis sativa derive), which was first legalized in California in 1996, is now legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. In California, about 2,100 dispensaries and other businesses distributing cannabis now operate. It is estimated that the state’s cannabis industry netted $2 billion in 2008. Despite this, state and federal law remain divergent; cannabis for any other use is illegal under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. However, the US Food and Drug Administration refuses to deviate from its position that marijuana has no accepted medical use. The Federal Government does not prosecute within states; however, in 2009, US Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the Feds will not prosecute those who comply with individual state laws, but rather focus on “drug traffickers who hide behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal.”
The Federal Government, however, will be forced to rethink its strategy in the coming months and years in light of two historicreforms in Washington and Colorado. On Election Day in 2012, while most of the country was worrying about Obama and Romney, these two states were worrying about recreational marijuana; they both passed amendments approving the regulated sale and growth of marijuana.
Now that you’re all caught up on marijuana news, you’re probably asking the question many others are asking; does it work, and if so, how? We must first examine the effects of marijuana on the brain to understand its potential healing effects.
One of the most important ingredients in marijuana is THC, which is short-talk for tetrahydrocannabinol. THC is to marijuana what caffeine is to coffee: the active chemical which acts on the brain and produces the recognizable effect. But did you know that your own body produces its own cannabinoids similar to THC called endocannabinoids? Because we have these naturally occurring chemicals in our body, we have cannabinoid receptors which are activated. When activated, the receptors prevent the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters which normally restrict the release of dopamine. With nothing to stop it, dopamine is flooded into the brain, producing many of the sensations associated with being “high”. Endocannabinoids break down quickly, meaning that their effects are limited; we cannot make ourselves truly high the way drugs do. THC works in just the same way to activate our own receptors, allowing dopamine to be freely released into our systems. Think of dopamine as rowdy, excited children in a daycare center; the neurotransmitters are the teachers holding them at bay, and the THC is the parents that come to release the energetic children.
The medicinal effects of marijuana are diverse, as are the symptoms and illnesses it can treat. Treatable illnesses include nausea, loss of appetite, chronic pain, anxiety, arthritis, cancer, AIDS, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, insomnia, ADHD, epilepsy, inflammation, migraines and Crohn’s disease. THC may also affect metabolism, anxiety, appetite, and immune function. However, Cannabis is well-known for helping to reduce pain in patients of both chronic illnesses and terminal diseases. This frees the patient from having to use prescription painkillers or addictive substances such as oxycontin or morphine.
Besides just relieving pain, cannabis can also reduce anxiety and increase appetite, which is helpful for patients of anorexia, AIDS, or cancer who cannot eat. Cannabis also produces feelings of giddiness and euphoria, as well as uncontrollable laughter. We can see how this may be useful to patients of depression or other mental conditions, but it benefits all sick patients; laughter can reduce stress and boost the immune system. Another effect is drowsiness or sleepiness, which is important to patients of insomnia who have trouble falling asleep.
Just how is medical marijuana consumed? We’ve all seen people smoking the drug on TV such as South Park, in movies such as Pineapple Express or Harold and Kumar, or perhaps even in real life. Whether it be through a joint, a blunt, a pipe, a bong, a bowl, or a bubbler, smoking has become synonymous with marijuana. But when we want to talk about medicine, this causes some problems. First, there is a stigma associated with smoking. “Smoking pot” carries with it such negative stereotypes as the stoner, the pothead, the hippie, the gangster, and the drug dealer, to name a few. Sick patients also have to deal with the medical stigma; the dangers of tobacco are a significant health concern, and likewise marijuana is feared for its potential to cause lung cancer (the medical literature is still divided on this).
Luckily, smoking is only one of many methods of delivering medicinal marijuana. Marijuana can be eaten in butters, crackers, or other foods. It can be processed into extracts such as hashish, resin, oils, and tinctures. Tinctures can be mixed with alcohol, while other extracts can be applied topically. Cannabis can also be prepared as a tea, and inhaled through a vaporizer. A vaporizer is an electrical appliance which heats the plant just enough to vaporize the THC without burning or producing smoke. Depending on the patient’s sickness and needs, cannabis can be prepared or cultivated in thousands of different ways with different THC concentrations. Cannabis sativa, for example, is better suited for patients of anxiety and depression because its THC affects the brain more, while Cannabis indica is better suited for patients of pain and insomnia because its ingredient cannabidiol acts as an analgesic and sedative which relaxes the body, reducing pain and increasing sleepiness. Despite the manner of delivery, medicinal marijuana is becoming more and more an acceptable form of treatment for deserving patients.