Western civilizations have used marijuana for its medicinal benefits since the mid-1800s. The earliest recorded medical use of cannabis occurred in 200 CE in China, where it was administered as an anesthetic.
The first laws regulating medical marijuana in the United States were enacted in 1996. Initially, medical cannabis was only legal in very specific cases for a few terminal conditions. But patients’ positive responses gradually led to widespread societal acceptance of cannabis and, as a result, state legislatures began considering marijuana’s broader applications.
The legalization of medical marijuana and the breadth of available anecdotal evidence helped debunk misconceptions about cannabis, and more research was conducted to determine medical marijuana’s benefits. Today, new findings about cannabis’ therapeutic value have justified further acceptance and more research.
The evidence for medical marijuana’s value is strong enough that it’s becoming a widely accepted mode of treatment for a vast number of chronic, life-altering conditions.
Medical marijuana is cannabis taken at a physician’s recommendation to manage a medical condition. In states where it is legal, the government recognizes marijuana as an effective palliative therapy.
Current research does not indicate that cannabis has specific curative properties for any disease. Rather, it helps people manage the effects of medical conditions that negatively affect their quality of life and ability to function each day. Doctors may also recommend it to manage the side effects of traditional treatment methods.
Still, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not and cannot approve marijuana as a treatment yet because cannabis remains federally prohibited.
Scientists and botanists have studied the components of cannabis that offer medicinal benefits in order to create various strains of cannabis plants. They can isolate and extract those components from the plants to fabricate various types of cannabis products that contain different cannabis concentrations.
As with any medication, each form of cannabis involves different absorption times and potencies. The amount of time marijuana stays in your system and what it treats will also depend on the method by which you consume it.
Your physician or the staff members at the dispensaries you visit can recommend the best marijuana delivery mechanism for your condition and your treatment goals. Medical marijuana is sold as:
Marijuana plants contain more than 100 chemicals, and each of them affects the body when ingested. Cannabidiol (CBD) and Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are the primary active chemicals that produce marijuana’s health effects.
CBD is a non-psychoactive component that calms the user. THC is the psychoactive compound of cannabis that causes the “high” associated with weed. Depending on how it is ingested, marijuana can enter the bloodstream through the lungs, digestive tract, oral membranes, or skin.
Once in your system, its chemicals alter messaging and signaling systems across the body. They also act as antioxidants, initiate anti-inflammatory reactions, and interact with neurotransmitters in the brain.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of receptors that runs parallel to the nervous system. It acts as the regulation system for the neurotransmitters that modulate all bodily functions and emotions.
We naturally produce endocannabinoids that trigger responses by attaching to receptors across the ECS. The system is responsible for everything from regulating our temperature to controlling appetite.
The ECS consists of CB1 receptors located in the brain and CB2 receptors that are present throughout the entire immune system. Researchers believe the ECS plays a substantial role in maintaining both physical and emotional wellbeing.
Ingesting THC and CBD through medical marijuana adds cannabinoids to the ECS. Those artificial cannabinoids are so molecularly similar to our naturally occurring endocannabinoids that they attach to the body’s receptors and affect its regulatory responses.
Research is still ongoing, but current evidence shows that medical marijuana eases certain conditions by altering messages and disrupting abnormal signals across the ECS.
Medicinal marijuana is currently recommended to many patients so that they can manage dozens of conditions that affect the mind, nervous system, and immune system. Its medicinal versatility is largely due to the multitude of chemicals that are present in the cannabis plant.
While each chemical serves an evolutionary purpose in the plant’s health and survival, they also produce positive chemical reactions within the human body when ingested.
Phytocannabinoids are cannabinoids produced by plants. They are the bioactive chemicals present in cannabis that produce its most profound medicinal effects by binding to CB1 and CB2 receptors throughout the ECS.
Tetrahydrocannabinol is the psychoactive chemical responsible for the euphoric high associated with marijuana. THC can also enhance creativity, promote relaxation, ease nausea, improve appetite, and induce sleepiness. Patients who experience adverse side effects like dizziness and increased anxiety are typically reacting to THC.
Cannabidiol is closely related to THC in terms of its chemical makeup. It does not intoxicate users like THC, but it can induce relaxation. CBD is typically associated with managing seizures, anxiety, and pain. It is often extracted, synthesized, and sold as a standalone product for patients who don’t enjoy legal access to THC or who do not want to consume marijuana.
Cannabigerol is present in trace amounts in the cannabis plant because it comes from the same building blocks as THC and CBD, which are more plentiful. CBG is believed to have profound medicinal effects.
Current research indicates that it may be the cannabinoid responsible for regulating eye health and pressure. It is also linked to the preservation of nerve cells in cases of Huntington’s disease.
Cannabichromene is non-psychoactive. It is believed to affect the brain and nerves to reduce pain and ease swelling. Research also shows that CBC increases the level of anandamide, a naturally occurring endocannabinoid, in the body. Investigators believe this makes it valuable in treating Alzheimer’s Disease, inflammation, and depression.
Cannabinol is a byproduct of the cannabis plant’s THC production that is only found in mature cannabis plants. CBN is molecularly similar to THC but non-intoxicating. It’s currently being studied as a sleep aid. Researchers have also noted that it has anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective properties.
Pentyl cannabinoids, like THC, are created by the cannabis plant using olivetolic acid. Molecularly, they are derived from carbon atoms with five tails.
Propyl cannabinoids are manufactured by the cannabis plant using divarinic acid. Their structural foundation consists of carbon atoms with three tails. Propyl cannabinoids emerge at much lower rates than pentyl cannabinoids but still offer medicinal benefits.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin is molecularly similar to THC and brings about the same psychoactive effects. Researchers believe it is most active in the nervous system.
Studies suggest THCV can help reduce seizure occurrences, regulate emotional reactions to food, and reduce cravings for addictive substances. It’s also believed to help control diabetes and epilepsy.
Cannabidivarin closely resembles CBD molecularly and doesn’t induce the same intoxicating effects. Researchers believe CBDVA depresses hyperactive nerves and stimulates hypoactive nerves. Investigations into CBDVA’s ability to treat symptoms of autism are ongoing, and it’s also believed to help regulate inflammation and chronic pain.
Terpenes are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in plants and some animals. They’re present in plants’ essential oils and responsible for the aromas, flavors, and even colors associated with various types of vegetation. Terpenes are secreted by the trichomes on cannabis leaves, giving each strain its own distinct smell and taste.
Beyond attracting potential pollinators and driving away pests, terpenes offer health benefits for humans.
Pinenes are a fragrant terpene to humans that repel predatory insects that may harm the cannabis plant. Research indicates pinenes may help with anxiety and reduce inflammation. Additionally, they are believed to be a bronchodilator, helping open up air passages in the lungs.
Limonene, which contributes to citrus’s distinct scent, is one of the most prevalent terpenes found in nature. Further investigation is necessary to fully understand its medicinal value, but current research indicates that it may help elevate mood, ease stress, and improve digestive tract health.
Researchers also believe it may complement other terpenes by facilitating their absorption into the skin or digestive tract.
Beta-Myrcene is the most common terpene found in cannabis. It’s responsible for the rich earthy aroma of many strains. Beta-Myrcene is most closely associated with marijuana’s calming and relaxing effects. Researchers also believe it can act as a muscle relaxant if consumed in sufficiently high doses.
Beta-Myrcene expedites skin absorption and is added to many topical cannabis products such as muscle creams and ointments.
Beta-Caryophyllene has a pungent and peppery scent. It differs from other terpenes because it is one of the few non-cannabinoids that binds to CB2 receptors. As a result, its pain management and anti-inflammatory effects are highly valuable.
Some research indicates that Beta-Caryophyllene’s interaction with CB2 receptors is neuroprotective and reduces the inflammation linked to many neurological disorders.
Linalool is found in hundreds of plants and has a strong flowery scent. It is antimicrobial, which helps keep plants healthy. And while it may support our immune systems, its main value comes from its calming effect, which can reduce anxiety.
In addition, researchers have proposed that linalool fortifies the immune system when the body’s stress response is elevated. This means the terpene’s may be able to combat autoimmune illnesses and digestive ailments.
Terpinolene is the least prominent terpene found in cannabis plants. Still, it’s an essential oil that’s vital to the cannabis plant’s defense system. Research suggests it may contribute to the uplifting physical sensation some people experience with marijuana.
Researchers have speculated that terpinolene helps prevent cardiac disease by protecting heart cells and slowing the growth of cancer cells, but further investigation is needed to confirm that claim.
Ocimene is thought to repel insects from the cannabis plant. It appears in relatively small amounts compared to other terpenes, and it features a sweet and earthy aroma. Researchers believe ocimene helps regulate the body’s immune responses and control its inflammation.
Some studies have even suggested that it may suppress the production of byproducts of inflammation that contribute to chronic disease.
Marijuana offers an array of medical benefits thanks to its chemical makeup. Primarily, cannabis mollifies inflammation and pain by bonding to the ECS.
Researchers have likened marijuana’s analgesic effect to that of opioids, but they also recognize that it poses a lower risk of dependence and milder side effects and that it cannot bring about fatal overdoses.
Medical marijuana also affects the limbic system, the section of the brain that regulates and controls emotions. Cannabis can treat the mental health symptoms of many psychological and emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression.
Cannabinoids help regulate everything from abnormal appetite to disrupted sleep by binding to the ECS.
Medical marijuana’s effects may differ from person to person—even among those with the same condition—based on their tolerance for cannabis, their bodies’ levels of naturally occurring endocannabinoids, and their comorbidities.
Every medicine poses its own side effects, but their occurrence, severity, and duration vary from person to person based on each individual’s biochemistry and tolerance for cannabis. Medical marijuana should be treated like any other medication: you must use it in accordance with your doctor’s instructions.
The most common side effects of medical marijuana are bloodshot eyes, dry mouth, and increased appetite. These are almost always temporary and typically wear off within 24 hours.
In some cases marijuana can have hallucinogenic effects that may increase anxiety. It also depresses the central nervous system, slowing reaction time and altering coordination.
Marijuana may cause paranoid thoughts, poor motor skills, or altered perceptions of reality. For some, it can elevate heart rate, increase blood pressure, and speed up respiration.
You should consume marijuana in a safe environment where you feel comfortable. Driving while under the influence of marijuana is illegal and dangerous. You should not operate machinery either.
Even if you live in a state where marijuana consumption and possession are legal, you should consult your physician before treating any conditions with cannabis. Marijuana is a palliative therapy and your medical condition may require management with traditional treatment methods first.
If your physician is not permitted to order medical marijuana or does not participate in your state’s medical marijuana program, ask for a referral to a provider who can recommend cannabis. Many physicians across the country have embraced medical marijuana. Countless palliative care and wellness clinics have doctors on staff who can discuss the benefits and risks of cannabis with you.
When considering medical marijuana, discuss your medical history, medications, and expectations with your doctor. Full transparency will help you rule out possible contraindications or prescription drug interactions with cannabis.
There are a wide variety of conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis. Here are some of them:
The prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia is growing as our population ages. Neuroinflammation harms brain cells, slows protein production, and hinders neurogenesis. Research shows that both CBD and THC’s anti-inflammatory effects guard brain cells against damage and elevate their overall health.
Additionally, the sedative effects of cannabis may help Alzheimer’s patients manage the aggression and agitation that are hallmarks of the disease.
Acne breakouts occur when excessive oil, which our bodies naturally produce, traps pollutants on the skin. Researchers believe that CBD effectively reduces our natural oil production, thereby soothing the skin.
Further study is needed, but CBD oil is a fast-acting substance that doesn’t produce the redness and irritation brought about by many traditional cosmetic products.
ALS breaks down the neural pathways that allow the brain to consciously and unconsciously direct every single one of its processes. Researchers believe that THC may have a neuroprotective effect that slows cell damage as ALS progresses. The relaxing effect of THC and CBD may also ease muscle tension and cramps that cause severe pain for ALS patients.
The “high” from THC and the calm from CBD may be able to manage anxiety disorders. There is strong anecdotal evidence that marijuana improves sleep, induces a sense of calm, and promotes relaxation.
That being said, some patients are susceptible to paranoia and increased anxiety as a side effect of marijuana. Selecting the proper strain and dose of marijuana is critical for patients seeking anxiety relief with cannabis.
Arthritis pain stems from inflammation generated by bone-on-bone contact or an auto-immune condition in which the body attacks its joints. The anti-inflammatory effects of CBD are believed to reduce pain and inflammation, thereby improving joint function.
In addition, some studies have shown that CBD can reduce the production of synovial fibroblasts, which attack cartilage. The resultant pain reduction may allow for a fuller range of motion, which can lubricate the joints and combat the effects of arthritis.
Researchers believe that the anti-inflammatory effects of marijuana can help manage asthma, especially allergy-induced asthma. Certain terpenes are thought to be particularly effective at dilating air passages between the trachea and lungs.
Rather than smoking or vaping, ask your doctor or dispensary personnel about the best way to consume cannabis for asthma management.
Investigators believe ADHD may stem from decreased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects memory and focus. THC elevates dopamine, helping patients improve their focus and attention span by triggering an uptake response.
Some studies are investigating marijuana’s ability to suppress overactive nervous system responses by binding to CB1 receptors.
Studies are ongoing, but medical marijuana may help patients with autism regulate their moods and improve their communication with fewer side effects than some medications.
Researchers believe CBD may positively affect serotonin production, helping patients navigate social interactions. Additionally, CBDVA is believed to help prevent aggressive or self-harming behavior by balancing neural excitement and inhibition.
Autoimmune disorders turn the body against itself, attacking healthy tissue it misinterprets as harmful. The anti-inflammatory effects of marijuana can help manage pain from such disorders and possibly preserve cell health. Marijuana may also inhibit the transmission of those signals to attack healthy tissue.
The calming effects of THC and CBD may help individuals with bipolar disorder stabilize their moods, ameliorating both manic and depressive episodes. The pleasurable feelings marijuana creates in both the mind and body may signal the ECS to maintain its homeostasis.
Cannabinoids can also help with focus and memory, which bipolar disorder can impair.
Wasting syndromes and the loss of one’s appetite can have devastating effects on one’s nutrition and overall health. Fortunately, the ECS is largely responsible for blood sugar regulation, food cravings, and insulin response. Marijuana is a strong appetite stimulant that can also promote good digestive health.
THC and CBD help cancer patients manage many of the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Namely, marijuana reduces nausea, improves appetite, regulates pain, and reduces anxiety. Medical marijuana can boost compromised immune systems and improve overall nutrition, helping cancer patients stick to their treatment protocols.
Patients experiencing muscle aches, depression, anxiety, and headaches as a result of their chronic fatigue may benefit from the pain-relieving and mood-balancing effects of marijuana.
Additionally, THC and CBD help regulate sleep cycles, improving the likelihood of restful and undisturbed sleep. Marijuana’s calming and sedative effects can help patients fall asleep.
THC and CBD boost dopamine levels and regulate serotonin production, helping individuals manage their symptoms of depression. Certain strains of cannabis may also intensify creativity and engagement, helping people combat the malaise associated with depression.
Proper dosing and monitoring your depression symptoms are important when using medical cannabis in order to avoid exacerbating your symptoms.
THC has been linked to lower glucose levels, enhanced insulin production, and increased adiponectin, which regulates the body’s blood sugar. CBD and THC also manage pain from diabetic neuropathy, control inflammation that can bring about conditions that stem from diabetes, and guard against retinopathy.
Certain strains of cannabis are also cultivated to help with impulse control and cravings. That helps people manage their weight, which is critical since obesity is a leading cause of type-2 diabetes.
There is a growing belief in the use of cannabis as part of harm reduction in treating drug addiction. Marijuana may help patients discontinue their use of other drugs like cocaine or heroin since it’s believed to be less addictive and no one can overdose on it.
Cannabis may also help patients move away from their addictions by providing extra dopamine and stimulating areas of the brain that regulate cravings and compulsive behavior.
Medical marijuana is effective at managing the chronic pain and mood imbalances experienced by patients with fibromyalgia thanks to its anti-inflammatory and muscle-relaxing effects. It also helps with sleep, which is often difficult for such patients.
Cannabis can also be consumed to combat pain flare-ups.
The cramping, pain, diarrhea, and nausea associated with GI disorders, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colitis, and Crohn’s Disease, respond well to medical marijuana. Researchers attribute this to cannabis’s anti-inflammatory and stress-reducing properties.
Aging can bring about chronic aches and pains, sleep disturbances, changes in mood, and an altered appetite. Cannabis can help stabilize one’s mood, regulate sleep, and mitigate chronic muscle pain. THC and CBD offer relaxing effects without many of the side effects of other medications.
Medical marijuana’s calming and sedative effects can also assist with anxiety related to major life changes that often come with aging.
Cannabinoids effectively reduce the intraocular pressure that results from glaucoma by triggering an ECS regulatory response in the eyes.
Conventional hepatitis treatments cause severe nausea, making patient compliance difficult. Fortunately, the antiemetic and appetite-boosting effects of medical marijuana help patients manage such uncomfortable side effects, improve their vitamin and nutrient intake, and support their immune systems.
The complex antiviral methods that treat HIV and AIDS suppress the appetite, cause severe nerve pain, disrupt sleep, and take an emotional toll on patients. But marijuana helps patients adhere to such treatments by stimulating their appetite and easing their neuropathic pain. It may also help them regulate their moods.
The antioxidant and neuroprotective effects of CBD and THC may slow the progression of Huntington’s Disease. Medical marijuana can help with the anxiety that’s associated with the terminal disease and provide pain management, nausea control, and appetite stimulation.
The sedative effects of THC may help patients fall and stay asleep, thereby providing rejuvenating rest. Additionally, its calming and anti-anxiety effects may reduce the stress that contributes to patients’ sleeplessness and triggers harmful inflammatory responses.
The mood changes, insomnia, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness that stem from menopause may respond to THC and CBD because the ECS regulates body temperature and sleep cycles. Cannabinoids from medical marijuana may help rebalance and stabilize the body and promote focus as hormonal changes occur.
Marijuana can ease the intense pain and nausea experienced during a migraine by interrupting pain signals across the ECS. Further study is needed into cannabis’s effects on migraines, but patients may use it to control headache triggers like stress and sleeplessness.
THC can mollify the stiffness and severe muscle spasms that accompany MS by easing tension. In addition to relieving tension and muscle spasticity, the use of marijuana can also relieve the severe pain and depressive symptoms associated with the disease.
Cannabinoids from medical marijuana bind to the ECS, disrupting the sensation of nausea and reducing patients’ episodes of vomiting. Patients may benefit whether their nausea is chronic or it’s a temporary side effect of a medication. Cannabis can also promote digestion by diminishing the inflammation that contributes to gastric distress.
Nerve pain is controllable with cannabis since THC and CBD bolster nerve health, reduce inflammation, and disrupt pain messaging. The sedative effects of THC may dull transmissions of nerve pain.
Cannabis also helps control post-fracture pain and inflammation associated with osteoporosis. Some research suggests that CBD can accelerate fracture repair and slow bone degeneration.
Cannabinoids effectively disrupt pain messages stemming from injuries and chronic tissue damage by binding to CB1 receptors. Reducing inflammation also eases chronic pain. THC and CBD relieve muscle tension and contracture, sources of persistent body aches and pains.
Patients suffering from terminal illnesses can benefit from the calming, stabilizing, and relaxing effects of cannabis. It also helps with the pain and appetite loss that’s common among patients receiving end-of-life care. Finally, THC’s sedative effects can also help terminal patients cope with feelings of anxiety or dread.
THC and CBD’s neuroprotective, antioxidant, and dopamine-boosting effects may help Parkinson’s patients manage tremors, loss of coordination, and mood changes. Medical marijuana can also manage the sleep disorders common among Parkinson’s patients, ameliorate muscle stiffness, and reduce pain.
The anxiety and tension that result from PTSD can be treated with THC and CBD. Researchers are currently assessing cannabis’s effect on the amygdala, the section of the brain that regulates threat response.
Cannabinoids may also dampen the impact of traumatic memories that can trigger emotional responses in PTSD patients.
By lowering the brain’s dopamine capacity and elevating its dopamine production, medical marijuana may enhance the dysfunctional pathways some researchers believe cause Restless Leg Syndrome. In addition, marijuana’s calming effects and its ability to improve sleep may help patients deal with the effects of their condition.
One of the only FDA-approved medications derived from marijuana is used to treat epilepsy. That’s because CBD and THC reduce seizure occurrence and manage post-seizure effects like nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal pain, sudden anxiety, muscle spasms, and headaches.
The calming effects of CBD and THC help many individuals manage their social anxiety. Researchers believe marijuana helps people navigate social interactions more easily by balancing their serotonin and diminishing their stress response. Cannabis’s calming effects can also help patients cope with sudden panic and anxiety.
Unmanaged stress is neurologically damaging and linked to an elevated inflammatory response, which can contribute to many chronic illnesses. The relaxation and calmness associated with THC and CBD can help individuals cope with external stressors and regulate their stress responses.
Still, you should always consult a doctor before using cannabis to manage stress because excessive consumption can trigger jitteriness, unease, and paranoia.
Strong anecdotal evidence indicates that THC can lead to a reduction in the tics associated with Tourette’s Syndrome. Researchers believe this may result from regulation of the areas of the brain tied to compulsion and depression of certain nerves’ activity.
CBD helps manage the anxiety and stress that stems from tics but does not appear effective when it comes to managing the primary symptoms of the condition.
Medical marijuana is illegal under federal law, but 38 states offer some form of legalized medical marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Agency still lists marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, but recent policy changes have allowed for further research into cannabis’ medical applications.
The FDA cannot and does not recognize medical marijuana as an approved treatment due to its legal status. As such, physicians cannot formally prescribe it as a medication and medical insurance providers, including Medicare and Medicaid, do not cover it as part of their plans.
The following states permit medical marijuana use:
Medical marijuana laws governing patient eligibility, possession limits, and qualifying medical conditions vary by state. Some states regulate patient access to medical marijuana through agencies managed by their departments of health. Others have fully legalized marijuana consumption and possession, even if it’s not for medical purposes.
Traveling across state lines with marijuana remains illegal due to the federal ban, and not all states require employers, landlords, and other private entities to recognize the validity of medical marijuana. You can still be subject to private institutions’ possession rules and drug testing policies regardless of where you live.
Each state with a medical marijuana program has explicit rules governing who can possess and consume medical marijuana, which doctors can recommend it, and which registration requirements must be followed by prospective patients. Consult your healthcare provider or your state’s department of health for specific guidance.
A medical marijuana card allows you to legally obtain, possess, and consume medical cannabis. The first step to obtaining one is to visit a provider who is authorized to issue recommendations for medical cannabis. Once you secure their authorization, you can then apply for a card through your state’s medical marijuana program.
Most states accept applications for their medical cannabis programs online or by mail. You’ll need to complete an application certifying your identity, residency, and eligibility to treat your qualifying condition(s) with medical marijuana. You’ll likely need a government-issued identification card to apply.
Make sure you are aware of the laws you must follow with your medical marijuana ID card. Violation of your state’s policies could result in a revocation of your card.
Once you have a medical marijuana card, you will only be allowed to purchase marijuana at dispensaries that are overseen or operated by your state. The department of health or your medical marijuana doctor can likely provide you with a list of approved dispensaries.
Dispensaries sell marijuana products that are cultivated and manufactured under applicable regulations to ensure their quality and safety. Policies vary by state, but your dispensary may sell marijuana as flower, vape cartridges, edibles, oral sprays, tinctures, and/or topical creams.
You should ask your doctor and your local dispensary’s staff members about dosing and what delivery method is best suited to your medical condition and treatment goals. Generally, you should start with a low dose of marijuana that you only consume every once in a while, then modify your consumption based on your response to it.