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The Health Benefits of Marijuana

The use of marijuana for medical purposes is now legal in 23 states. Two more states are considering legalization for medical use by 2016. On a federal level, however, the herb is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance (other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote).

It received this label in 1970, when the Controlled Substance Act was enacted. This act labeled cannabis as a drug with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use,” which clearly is not an accurate description according to the US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. In a recent interview on ” CBS This Morning” he commented “We have some preliminary data that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, that marijuana can be helpful.” While Murthy didn’t take the opportunity to endorse legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes, he did add that he believes U.S. marijuana policy should be driven by science and what it reveals about the efficacy of using the plant for medical purposes.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, says he was wrong to ignore marijuana’s medical potential when he wrote an opinion piece in 2009 called “Why I would Vote No on Pot.” Gupta filmed a documentary that aired on CNN. After the documentry aired he wrote an editorial on CNN.com in which he admitted that the research for the movie changed his mind about the drug and its medicinal effects. After traveling the world, meeting with medical experts and medical marijuana patients, Gupta concludes “we have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”

The history of hemp goes back to colonial Jamestown Virginia where colonists used hemp for a variety of purposes. It is even reported that the Declaration of Independence was written on paper produced from hemp. Marijuana was a popular botanical medicine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, common in US pharmacies of the time (and its use can actually be dated back to 2700 BC). Today a wealth of research shows marijuana does have outstanding promise as a medicinal plant, largely due to its cannabidiol (CBD) content. But don’t be confused, industrial hemp is not the same as the hemp grown for medicinal use. When industrial hemp is smoked it often results in headaches not the highs or relief from pain one gets from medicinal marijuana.

Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body. There are cannabinoid receptors in your brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system, and more. Both the therapeutic and psychoactive properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates a cannabinoid receptor. Research is still ongoing on just how extensive their impact is on our health, but to date it’s known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many body processes, including metabolic regulation, cravings, pain, anxiety, bone growth, and immune function.

One of the earliest uses of medical marijuana was for the treatment of glaucoma. This is a condition that increases pressure in the eyeball, damaging the optic nerve and causing loss of vision. According to the National Eye Institute marijuana can decrease the pressure inside the eye.”Studies in the early 1970s showed that marijuana, when smoked, lowered intraocular pressure (IOP) in people with normal pressure and those with glaucoma.” These effects of the drug may slow the progression of the disease, preventing blindness.

A 2010 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concluded that just three puffs of marijuana a day for five days helped those with chronic nerve pain to relieve pain and sleep better. The article further called for additional research stating “These findings, coupled with anecdotal evidence of the analgesic effects of smoked cannabis, support a reconsideration of cannabinoid agents as analgesics.”

According to a report on the Americans for Safe Access website a survey of people living with Multiple Sclerosis report that 40% of respondents used cannabis to relieve symptoms of the disease. The majority of the respondents cited relief of chronic pain, spasticity, and depression. This same site also has links to research studies suggesting that cannabis may help in the treatment or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. One common issue for Alzheimer patients is agitation. Clinical research involving THC indicates that the cannabinoid reduced the agitation common to Alzheimer’s sufferers.

One of the strongest areas of research regarding marijuana’s health benefits pertains to pain. In 2010, the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) released a report on 14 clinical studies (most of which were FDA-approved, double-blind and placebo-controlled) on the use of marijuana for pain. The studies revealed that marijuana not only controls pain, but in some cases it did so better than available alternatives. While prescription painkillers were responsible for 16,600 deaths in 2010, one study found “little, if any effect of marijuana use on mortality in men and women.

Four states (Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Alaska) have legalized marijuana for recreational use. In some states criminal penalties have been removed for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The debate continues in many other states, as they watch closely what has happened in the states where it has become legalized.

Currently, cannabis is most often recommended as complementary or adjunct medicine. But there is a substantial consensus among experts in the relevant disciplines, including the American College of Physicians, that cannabis and cannabis-based medicines have therapeutic properties that could potentially treat a variety of serious and chronic illness.

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