Cannabis, also known as marijuana, is an herb that has been used for medicinal, spiritual, and recreational purposes for thousands of years. Botanically speaking, it is a member of the Cannabaceae family, which also includes hops (used for beer), and is characterized by its distinctive leaves and flowers. Most people don’t know this but cannabis has a rich history that dates back to ancient civilizations all over the world, where it was used for a variety of purposes, including pain relief, relaxation, and religious ceremonies. In the United States, cannabis was initially used for medicinal purposes in the 19th century but was later criminalized in the early 20th century due to political and social pressures.
You can read more about why and when it was criminalized down below at the end of my article. Unlike other herbs that are popular today (for example, resveratrol, ginkgo, echinacea, St. John’s wort, turmeric, and milk thistle), cannabis extract produces potent psychoactive effects, for which it has paid a hefty price!
Despite its history of prohibition, cannabis has experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years, particularly for its potential medicinal benefits. Many states in the US have legalized medical cannabis, and some have even legalized recreational use.
Fun fact: The word “marijuana” is thought to have originated from the Spanish word “marihuana,” which was used to describe the plant in the early 20th century. The term was popularized in the US during the era of prohibition and is now commonly used to refer to cannabis.
We can’t go back in time and easily determine where and when cannabis was first discovered in someone’s garden! But it has been used for thousands of years. It was around 4,000 BC when the first written record of use was found.
In 1839, Irish physician Dr. William O’Shaughnessy introduced cannabis to Western medicine after observing its therapeutic effects in India. Cannabis was widely used as a medicine in the United States and Europe throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. You might wonder what the benefits are of this herbal extract.
The Difference Between Hemp and Cannabis
Hemp and cannabis are both plants in the Cannabis sativa family, but they have different characteristics and uses. Hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa that is grown specifically for industrial purposes, such as for its fibers and seeds. Hemp plants typically contain very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is responsible for the “high” associated with marijuana.
Marijuana, on the other hand, is a variety of Cannabis sativa that is cultivated for its high THC content and its psychoactive effects. Marijuana plants typically contain much higher levels of THC than hemp plants. While hemp and marijuana are both technically classified as cannabis, they are grown and used for different purposes and have different legal statuses.
Here are the 5 main potential uses for cannabis:
1. Cannabis is used for Pain Relief
A systematic review of randomized controlled trials conducted in 2015 found that medical cannabis was effective in treating chronic pain in adults. The STUDY reviewed 28 randomized controlled trials with a total of 2,454 participants and concluded that medical cannabis was associated with a significant reduction in chronic pain.
2. Reducing Nausea and Vomiting
A 2017 META-ANALYSIS of randomized controlled trials found that medical cannabis was effective in reducing nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. The study reviewed six randomized controlled trials with a total of 1,046 participants and concluded that medical cannabis was associated with a significant reduction in chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.
3. Managing Anxiety and Depression
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that medical cannabis was associated with a reduction in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. In this case, the study reviewed all the data collected from 1,811 medical cannabis users and found that cannabis use was associated with a significant reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. That’s amazing, you probably will never hear a doctor recommend the herb for these symptoms, it’s always going to be about an SSRI, right?!
4. Treating Seizures
A randomized controlled trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2017 found that a cannabis-based medication called Epidiolex was effective in reducing seizures in people with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy. The TRIAL reviewed 120 children and young adults with Dravet syndrome and found that those who received Epidiolex had a significant reduction in the frequency of seizures compared to those who received a placebo.
5. Treatment of Brain Tumors
There is some evidence to suggest that cannabis may have potential therapeutic benefits for brain tumors, including glioblastoma. However, it doesn’t help everyone because many other factors are involved in the treatment of brain tumors. Still, it is sometimes employed for this purpose and used adjunctively (not all by itself). There is some research to support its use.
A study published in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology in 2014 found that cannabidiol (CBD), which is the non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, inhibited the growth of glioblastoma cells in a laboratory setting. The study also found that CBD enhanced the anti-tumor effects of temozolomide, a chemotherapy drug commonly used to treat glioblastoma.
The researchers concluded that CBD may have the potential as an adjunct therapy for glioblastoma because it slowed down growth of the cells (at least in a petri dish).
You may wonder if there are human studies for cannabis and glioblastoma, and yes, there are many. One such study was conducted in Madrid, Spain and was published about 10 years ago in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2013.
This study investigated the effects of THC, CBD, and a combination of both on the growth of glioblastoma cells in humans (as opposed to a test tube study). The researchers found that both THC and CBD inhibited the growth of glioblastoma cells, and that the combination of both was more effective than either alone. The study concluded that cannabinoids may have potential as a treatment option for glioblastoma.
Another study, published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics in 2014, investigated the effects of a synthetic cannabinoid on glioblastoma cells in people. The study found that the compound inhibited the growth of glioblastoma cells and induced cell death, suggesting that even synthetic cannabinoids may have potential as a treatment for glioblastoma!
It’s important to note that while these studies imply potential benefits of CBD and marijuana for glioblastoma, more research is needed to fully understand the effect and why individual response varies so much. If you have glioblastoma, don’t just smoke pot! You should speak with your oncologist about your options, including the adjunctive use of cannabis extracts.
But can you do that? Is it available everywhere? The answer is no.
Availability of Medical Cannabis. This is a shapeshifting detail, and depends on state laws. Currently, as you can see in the picture below, most states in the union have decriminalized pot, making it available to people who have a valid need for it. Being decriminalized does not mean it is legal in your state.
It’s important to note that while medical cannabis is technically “legal” in these states, the laws and regulations surrounding its use vary widely and doctors may or may not prescribe it to you for a specific condition. Additionally, cannabis remains illegal at the federal level in the United States, which can create both legal and financial challenges for commercial businesses and individuals using cannabis.
The dosage forms of medical cannabis.
Medical cannabis can come in a variety of forms because people of all sorts of ages take it. For example, children with seizures may prefer gummies to tablets or joints! If you are using it for a skin problem or muscle condition, topicals may work best. It’s important to note that different forms of medical cannabis may have different onset times, duration of actions and effects on the body. That’s why you should work with a medical practitioner to find the most appropriate dosage form and method of administration.
Some common forms of medical cannabis include along with a pro and con for each. Having this information will help you make the best decision for what’s right for you.
Capsules or Tablets:
Pro: Cannabis capsules and tablets provide a consistent and measured dosage, making it easier for people to manage their medication and maintain a consistent treatment regimen.
Con: The onset of effects may be slower with capsules or tablets, which can be frustrating for those seeking quick relief.
Pro: Cannabis tinctures offer a discreet and convenient way to consume medical cannabis. They can be easily added to food or drink, and the sublingual route of administration allows for faster onset of effects compared to edibles.
Con: Tinctures can have a strong taste that some of you may find unpleasant, and it can be challenging to measure an accurate dose.
Pro: Cannabis-infused edibles can be a tasty and enjoyable way to consume medical cannabis. They are discreet and do not produce the strong odor associated with smoking or vaping.
Con: The onset of effects with edibles can be slow, and the effects can be unpredictable and long-lasting, making it more challenging to manage the dosage.
Pro: Cannabis topicals can be applied directly to the skin, providing targeted relief for localized pain and inflammation. They do not produce psychoactive effects and are a good option for patients who do NOT want to ingest cannabis.
Con: The effects of topicals are limited to the area where they are applied, and they may not be effective for conditions that require systemic relief.
Pro: Inhalation is a fast-acting method of consuming medical cannabis, with effects felt within minutes. Smoking and vaporizing are popular methods that allow for easy dose control.
Con: The inhalation of cannabis smoke can irritate the lungs and airways, potentially causing respiratory problems. Some people find smoking or vaping to be unpleasant or uncomfortable.
It’s important to note that the most appropriate form of medical cannabis may vary depending on a patient’s condition, preferences, and other factors, and if you’re interested in this treatment, you should work closely with your healthcare provider to find the most suitable form and dosage.
The question about shipping always comes up for families that live in different states. I want to warn you that it is actually illegal to ship medical cannabis across state lines in the United States, even if both states have legalized medical cannabis. This is because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, and interstate commerce of cannabis is prohibited under federal law.
If you try to ship it, and you’re caught, shipping cannabis across state lines might result in legal consequences, including criminal charges and confiscation of the medicine.
Additionally, each state has its own laws and regulations regarding medical cannabis, including requirements for how you as a “patient” does the registration, certification, and purchase. People who need medical cannabis should obtain it from a licensed dispensary in your state rather than trying to transport it across state lines.
I know people are buying it from street dealers in every state, or online black markets because they don’t want to go through the perceived hassle of obtaining cannabis properly, but I just want to reiterate that there are laws and regulations surrounding medical cannabis.
They are constantly evolving, and if you need it, I suggest you consult with a qualified healthcare provider! And moreover, obtain it from a legitimate commercial dispensary in your state. While rare, cannabis may be tainted with fentanyl! Some reports of illicit cannabis being contaminated with fentanyl have emerged.
If you don’t know what that is, it’s, a synthetic opioid that is many times more potent than heroin! It often leads to fatality because it’s so potent and can cause overdose very easily. Again, these reports of cannabis-tainted products are relatively rare, most of the time fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths are attributed to illicit opioids rather than marijuana. Still, I think it’s important to at least tell you it’s possible.
People who purchase medical cannabis obtained from licensed dispensaries do not deal with this risk of fentanyl contamination because licensed dispensaries have strict regulations as well as testing requirements to ensure the safety and purity of their products.
Side Effects of Cannabis
Like any medication, there are side effects. Cannabis is an herbal remedy as you know, but as you might expect (or perhaps experienced!) consuming too much cannabis can result in a range of side effects. It can happen if you get too much from smoking it or eating edibles.
Since edibles take a longer time to take effect, and people sometimes think it’s not working so they eat more… well you can see how an overdose is much more likely to occur from consuming it! Be careful. Be sure to seek medical attention if it gets serious. Here are the most common side effects of taking too much cannabis:
Anxiety and Paranoia: High doses of cannabis can cause feelings of anxiety, paranoia, and even panic attacks in some users.
Impaired Coordination: Cannabis can impair coordination and motor skills, making it more difficult to perform tasks such as driving or operating machinery. Never smoke or ingest cannabis and then drive because even though you think you’re okay, you’re reflexes are much slower, your judgment is impaired, and it’s harder to stay in your own lane. Don’t do it.
Memory Impairment: Cannabis use can impair short-term memory and attention, making it more difficult to concentrate or remember information.
Dry Mouth and Eyes: Cannabis can cause dry mouth and dry eyes, which can be uncomfortable but are generally not serious.
Dizziness and Lightheadedness: High doses of cannabis can cause dizziness and lightheadedness, which may be accompanied by nausea or vomiting.
Increased Heart Rate: Cannabis can increase heart rate, which can be problematic for individuals with pre-existing heart conditions.
Hallucinations and Delusions: In rare cases, high doses of cannabis can cause hallucinations and delusions, particularly in individuals with a history of mental health issues.
It’s important to note that the severity of these side effects can vary depending on the dose, route of administration, and individual factors such as age, sex, and previous experience with cannabis. While these side effects are generally mild and short-lived, individuals who experience severe or persistent symptoms should seek medical attention. Additionally, it’s important for people to use medical cannabis under the guidance of a qualified healthcare provider and to start with a low dose and gradually increase it as needed to minimize the risk of side effects.
Fertility: Impaired sperm count and motility have been reported and while studies conflict, it seems regular use can lower testosterone. This alone will have a significant effect on libido and both male and female fertility. It may vary on the frequency with which you use it, and the duration of use as well as dosage (and potency) of the cannabis. Genetics may also play a role.
There is a rare but increasingly recognized condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome or “CHS” for short. This can happen the very first time you use cannabis, or more typically, it can occur in someone who has heavy, long-term use of cannabis. The syndome of CHS is not really well understood yet, but we think it’s related to your endocannabinoid system in your body, and how it responds to cannabis.
Users who have had CHS describe it as cycles of intense and severe nausea, along with vomiting, and obviously chest and abdominal pain. These symptoms can last for several days and are hard to relieve. Anti-nausea medications may be useful for some but not everyone responds to that, and possibly hot showers and electrolyte replenishment or IVs of electrolytes.
Again, the exact cause of CHS is not well understood, but having CHS is bad for people who truly need medical cannabis because it means they can’t tolerate their treatment. As far as I know, you have to avoid cannabis at all costs if you have CHS.
What type of doctor should you see to get cannabis?
If you are considering trying medical cannabis, see a physician who is registered with your state’s medical cannabis program. Unlike in the 80s and even the 90s, today you can find all kinds of medical doctors that are smart and know the art of prescribing medical cannabis properly.
These physicians may include primary care doctors, pain management specialists, neurologists, and oncologists. Today, some states have laws that allow nurse practitioners or physician assistants to certify patients for medical cannabis use. I think the #1 thing you should do when choosing a healthcare provider in your area is find someone who has a lot of experience. You don’t want to be someone’s guinea pig!
Schedule a consultation to discuss your medical history and treatment goals with the provider. Don’t be shy with questions, ask everything you need to ask in order to familiarize yourself with the treatment plan, and the rules and regulations of your state. If you do take cannabis, and experience a side effect, be sure to report the adverse reactions to your provider.
Can you get it at CVS or Walgreens?
No, in the United States, medical cannabis is dispensed by licensed dispensaries rather than pharmacies. This is because cannabis remains illegal at the federal level, and pharmacies are subject to federal regulations that prohibit the dispensing of illegal substances.
Licensed dispensaries are regulated by state laws and are typically required to follow strict rules and procedures regarding the production, testing, labeling, and dispensing of medical cannabis products. People who have been certified by a healthcare provider for medical cannabis use can purchase cannabis products at licensed dispensaries, which may include a variety of forms such as flowers, concentrates, edibles, tinctures, and topicals.
It’s important to note that the availability of medical cannabis and the requirements for certification and purchase can vary widely by state, and you should familiarize yourself with the rules and regulations in your state. Additionally, you should only obtain medical cannabis from licensed dispensaries and should never purchase cannabis products from illegal sources or street dealers! Did I really need to say that out loud?!
One recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in February 2021 examined the effectiveness of medical cannabis in reducing opioid use among patients with chronic pain. The study included 131 participants with chronic pain who were taking opioids and were certified for medical cannabis use.
The researchers found that participants who used medical cannabis experienced a significant reduction in opioid use, with 32% of people discontinuing opioid use completely. The study concluded that medical cannabis may be a viable alternative to opioids for treating chronic pain.
The study is important because of the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States, which has resulted in widespread misuse, addiction, and overdose deaths. Medical cannabis has been suggested as a potential alternative to opioids for treating chronic pain, but there is a lack of high-quality evidence to support this claim. This study adds to the growing body of research on medical cannabis and chronic pain and suggests that it may be a safe and effective alternative to opioids.
Medical cannabis has been shown to have potential benefits for a variety of conditions, including chronic pain, nausea and vomiting, and anxiety. Clinical studies and trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of medical cannabis for managing symptoms and improving the quality of life in some people.
Medical cannabis comes in a variety of forms, including capsules or tablets, tinctures, edibles, topicals, and inhalation methods. Each form has its own pros and cons. If you’re interested, you should work with their healthcare provider to find the most appropriate form and dosage for their needs.
Taking too much cannabis can result in a range of side effects, including anxiety, impaired coordination, memory impairment, dry mouth and eyes, dizziness, increased heart rate, and hallucinations. People who experience severe or persistent symptoms should seek immediate medical attention.
In the United States, medical cannabis is typically dispensed by licensed dispensaries rather than pharmacies remember, you should always obtain medical cannabis from licensed dispensaries and follow the rules and regulations in their state.
Overall, medical cannabis has shown promise as a treatment option for certain conditions, and if you’re interested in using it, discuss the potential benefits and risks with your healthcare provider to determine what’s right for you.
Why Was it Criminalized in the USA?
Cannabis has been decriminalized in many states, over the past few decades. It was first criminalized in the United States with the passage of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937. The act, which was introduced by Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, imposed a tax on the sale of cannabis and required sellers to register with the government.
While the Marihuana Tax Act did not explicitly ban cannabis, the government effectively made it illegal by making it difficult and costly to sell and distribute. The act was passed in response to political and social pressures. More specifically, there was a nationwide “reefer madness” campaign that portrayed marijuana as a cause of insanity, addiction, and criminal violence, hence the Tax Act passed.
The sudden criminalization of cannabis had a significant impact on the herb’s use and availability here. Cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug (like heroin and fentanyl!) under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which made it illegal to use, possess, or distribute cannabis at the federal level. Schedule 1 means that it has a high potential for abuse and addiction. Despite this, many states have since legalized medical and/or recreational cannabis, as it has come back into favor. There is growing momentum for federal legalization or decriminalization of cannabis as more and more states make it available to consumers again.
I know this is controversial subject matter. I’ve listed additional references here:
Marcu JP, Christian RT, Lau D, et al. Cannabidiol enhances the inhibitory effects of delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol on human glioblastoma cell proliferation and survival. J Neurooncol. 2014;118(2): 259-69. doi: 10.1007/s11060-014-1366-x
Torres S, Lorente M, Rodríguez-Fornés F, et al. A combined preclinical therapy of cannabinoids and temozolomide against glioma. Mol Cancer Ther. 2011;10(1):90-103. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-10-0688
Velasco G, Sánchez C, Guzmán M. Anticancer mechanisms of cannabinoids. Curr Oncol. 2016;23(Suppl 2):S23-S32. doi: 10.3747/co.23.3080
Suzy Cohen, has been a licensed pharmacist for over 30 years and believes the best approach to chronic illness is a combination of natural medicine and conventional. She founded her own dietary supplement company specializing in custom-formulas, some of which have patents. With a special focus on functional medicine, thyroid health and drug nutrient depletion, Suzy is the author of several related books including Thyroid Healthy, Drug Muggers, Diabetes Without Drugs, and a nationally syndicated column.