What Is Medical Marijuana, and What Is It Use

Keep reading for a crash course in medical marijuana, how it works, the conditions it's used to treat, and its legality across the world.

Medicinal Marijuana
Medicinal Marijuana

Ask someone if they know about medical marijuana, and they’ll probably respond with a 'yes''. However, medical weed is a complex topic shrouded with misconceptions.


Ask someone if they know about medical marijauna

In this article, we'll walk you through the basics of medical cannabis—what it is, how it differs from recreational cannabis, the conditions it's used to treat, and more.

What is medical marijuana?

Medical marijuana encompasses the use of whole-plant cannabis (such as dried cannabis flowers), cannabis compounds (such as cannabinoids and terpenes), and cannabis derivatives (such as extracts, tinctures, and creams) to treat a medical ailment or its symptoms.

Today, over 25 countries around the world have legalised medical cannabis to some degree, though the legal framework regulating medical marijuana can vary greatly from one region to another (more on this below).¹

Is there a difference between medical marijuana and recreational cannabis?

Yes, there are some differences between medical and recreational weed, but they're not necessarily what people think. Rather than referring to different types of cannabis, the terms "recreational" and "medical" refer to the intent with which a person uses marijuana.

Recreational cannabis use, therefore, is best described as "using cannabis for pleasure".

Unlike a medical patient who uses cannabis to relieve a particular ailment or symptom, a recreational cannabis user may enjoy the effects of cannabis in a similar way as one would enjoy alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

Unlike medical cannabis, recreational cannabis is only fully legal in four countries:

  • Canada

  • Georgia

  • South Africa

  • Uruguay

Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Thailand, for example, either tolerate or have decriminalised some aspects of recreational cannabis use.

Another way in which medical and recreational cannabis differ is in their availability. In most countries with legal medical cannabis programmes, patients can access cannabis medicines via pharmacies or specialised cannabis dispensaries, or even grow their own cannabis at home.

Since recreational cannabis remains illegal in most parts of the world, recreational cannabis users often have to source their weed illegally. Even in areas where both recreational and medical cannabis use are legal, the type and amount of products available to medical or recreational users can vary.

Common misconceptions about medical and recreational cannabis

In what follows, we bust some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding medical vs recreational cannabis.

• "Medical marijuana is stronger than recreational cannabis"

The potency of cannabis is chiefly defined by its cannabinoid content, which is largely based on genetics and how it is grown. Whether or not a type of cannabis is labelled as medicinal says nothing about its potency.

• "Only specific varieties or strains of cannabis are considered medical"

The terms "medical" and "recreational" do not refer to different varieties or types of cannabis—both medical and recreational weed come from the cannabis plant. And every cannabis plant has therapeutic potential, depending on its chemical makeup and how it affects a particular person.

• "Medical cannabis has to be rich in CBD"

There is a huge misconception that CBD is the "medical compound" in cannabis and THC is "the stuff that gets us high". The research supporting the medical potential of cannabis speaks to both CBD and THC, especially the latter—which we explain in more detail further below.

• "Medical marijuana is of a higher quality than recreational cannabis"

Unfortunately, the quality of cannabis can be hard to define, especially in illicit markets. Even in some of the world's largest legal cannabis markets, there are still concerns about the way cannabis is cultivated, from where it is sourced, the amount of contaminants it contains, and more. As legal cannabis markets mature, however, quality control for both medical and recreational cannabis is improving. Obviously, quality control remains an even greater challenge in illicit cannabis markets.

What is medical cannabis used for?

Our understanding of cannabis is still developing, which is not surprising, seeing as studying or using the plant has been considered “taboo” since it became illegal in the early 20th century. Nonetheless, a growing body of research now proposes that cannabis may prove useful in treating/managing a variety of conditions. Here we'll explore some of the ways medical cannabis is used.

Medical marijuana and depression

Many cannabis users (both medical and recreational) self-report that cannabis helps to relieve their depressive symptoms. Plus, research has also shown that the endocannabinoid system (which is naturally present in all humans) plays a role in mood regulation.

More specifically, research suggests that agonists of cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1), such as THC, may increase serotonin functions in the brain and thereby improve a person's mood, while antagonists of the same receptor may increase depressive symptoms. Nonetheless, there are no high-quality clinical studies exploring the effects of cannabis on depression, and the little scientific research on the topic has produced mixed results.²

Medical marijuana and fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a rare chronic pain condition that often responds poorly to treatment. There is research positing that the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in how we experience pain, and the US National Academies Press suggests that cannabis may be an effective pain treatment.³

Numerous studies have also specifically evaluated cannabis or cannabis derivatives as a potential treatment for fibromyalgia-related pain and sleep issues.⁴,⁵,⁶ Many of these studies have produced positive results, especially those testing THC.

Medical marijuana and glaucoma

Glaucoma is caused by fluid buildup in the eye, which can cause intraocular pressure (IOP). Over time, this abnormal pressure in the eye can damage the optic nerve and eventually cause vision loss or blindness. To date, glaucoma is one of the most commonly cited reasons for using medical marijuana, and there is solid research to support (at least to some degree) its efficacy.

Since the 1970s, researchers have been able to show that THC can relieve intraocular pressure, though newer treatments have since overshadowed and outperformed cannabis-based therapies.⁷

Medical marijuana and PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects 6 in 100 Americans at least once in their lives, and up to 27% of people with PTSD have attempted suicide.⁸ PTSD can affect people very differently, but some of its symptoms include:

• Nightmares
• Flashbacks
• Mood swings
• Aggression
• Depression
• Substance abuse

Like other mental health conditions, PTSD is extremely complex, affecting different people in different ways, and to varying degrees. People with PTSD commonly self-medicate using cannabis (especially in areas where cannabis is legal for either medical or recreational use) and report improvements in their symptoms.⁹

While there is limited research exploring the medical benefits of cannabis for PTSD, much of this research suggests that cannabis can improve the quality of life of PTSD patients by addressing one or more of the aforementioned symptoms.¹⁰

Medical marijuana and chronic pain

Pain can be a symptom of a wide variety of health conditions. And while it might seem fairly straightforward, the way we experience and treat pain is actually very complex.¹¹ For a long time, cannabis has been of interest to patients, medical professionals, and researchers as a potential natural alternative to regular pain medications (many of which can have serious side effects) in treating everything from back pain to fibromyalgia.¹²

In 2021, the British Medical Journal published an insightful clinical practice guideline designed to inform patients and medical professionals about the efficacy of cannabis as a potential pain treatment, as well as when, and when not, to look to cannabis for pain relief.¹³ The guideline compiles findings from a large body of research into cannabis and pain, and shows that a significant number of patients prefer cannabis over conventional pain treatments for its:

• Efficacy at relieving pain
• Ability to improve physical function
• Ability to improve sleep

Where is medical marijuana legal?

As research continues to explore the potential of cannabis as a medicine, governments around the world are changing how they regulate cannabis for both medical and recreational use. Below we'll take a brief look at some areas where medical marijuana is legal.

America/Canada

Canada and the US are home to some of the largest legal cannabis markets in the world. In 1975, Alaska became the first state in North America to legalise cannabis following Ravin v State (though it later recriminalised cannabis in 1990). In 1996, California legalised cannabis for medical use, and Alaska followed suit in 1998. At the time of writing, 37 states have legalised cannabis for medical use to some degree.¹⁴ In many parts of the US, medical cannabis patients can access cannabis by registering for a medical marijuana card (which usually requires a doctor's prescription) and purchasing their medicine from licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. All that said, the US has yet to sign medical cannabis into federal law.

Canada, on the other hand, first legalised cannabis for medical purposes in 2016. Then, in 2018, it became the second nation in the world to fully legalise cannabis for both medical and recreational use, after Uruguay.¹⁵

Europe

Cannabis laws in Europe vary greatly from one country to another. Many European countries have medical cannabis programmes, including the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Luxembourg, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Portugal, and more. Unfortunately, many of these markets are facing problems, such as a lack of patients, lacking supplies of cannabis medications, tight restrictions regarding who can access medical cannabis, and more. Check out this article for a more detailed review of medical marijuana laws across Europe.

Is medical marijuana safe?

At NOIDS, we are not doctors or health professionals, so we cannot help you make decisions about potential medical treatments. As we've covered in this article, however, we're aware of the growing body of evidence supporting cannabis' promising therapeutic potential. We're also aware that medical cannabis can produce side effects and isn't for everyone. This article is designed to offer you a crash course in medical marijuana and some of the conditions it is sometimes used to treat. If you're interested in trying medical cannabis, consult with your doctor or healthcare professional.

If you like to cook with cannabis, you'll know just how easy it can be to overcook or burn your weed. With the POT by NOIDS, however, the days of scorched buds are over. Read more about our all-in-one herb cooker **here.

References:

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2. Stea, J. Can Cannabis Help With Depression? Psychology Today. Published December 4, 2020. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/writing-integrity/202012/can-cannabis-help-depression

3. National Academies Press. Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. In: The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. The National Academies Press. 2017: 88-138. Accessed on December 7, 2022. https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/24625/chapter/6#88

4. Skrabek RQ., Galimova, L.,Ethans, K., & Perry, D. Nabilone for the Treatment of Pain in Fibromyalgia. The Journal of Pain. 2008;9(2): 164-173. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1526590007008735

5. Fiz, J., Durán, M., Dolors, C., Carbonell, J., & Farré, M. Cannabis Use in Patients with Fibromyalgia: Effect on Symptoms Relief and Health-Related Quality of Life. PLoS ONE. 2011;6(4). Accessed December 7, 2022. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0018440

6. van de Donk, T., Niesters, M., Kowal, MA., Olofsen, E., Dahan, A., & van Velzen, M. An experimental randomized study on the analgesic effects of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis in chronic pain patients with fibromyalgia. Pain 2019;160(4). 860-869. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30585986/

7. Mack A & Joy J. Marijuana and Glaucoma. In: Marijuana as Medicine? The Science Beyond the Controversy. The National Academies Press. 2000:124-128. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK224386/

8. Gillette, H. The Link Between PTSD and Suicide. Psych Central. Published March 24, 2022. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://psychcentral.com/ptsd/ptsd-suicide

9. Voser, SM. How Cannabis Helps Veterans Heal Their Battle Scars. ZeWeed. Published March 30, 2021. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.zeweed.com/18467-2/?c=13ac35fba0ac

10. Rehman, Y., Saini, A., Huang, S., Sood, E., Gill, R., & Yanikomeroglu, S. Cannabis in the management of PTSD: a systematic review. AIMS Neuroscience. 2021;8(3): 414–434. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8222769/

11. Ansell, B., Petrova, S., Heizer, S., & Creagh, S. Trust Me I’m An Expert: The science of pain. The Conversation. Published March 1, 2018. Accessed December 7, 2022.

12. Bains, S., & Mukhdomi, T. Medicinal Cannabis For Treatment Of Chronic Pain. In: StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing. 2022. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK574562/

13. British Medical Journal. Medical cannabis or cannabinoids for chronic pain: a clinical practice guideline. British Medical Journal, 2021: 374. Published September 9, 2021. Accessed December 7, 2022. https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2040

14. National Conference of State Legislatures. State Medical Cannabis Laws. Published on November 9, 2022. Accessed on December 7, 2022. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-medical-marijuana-laws.aspx

15. Government of Canada. Cannabis In Canada: Get the facts. Last updated May 2022. Accessed December 7, 2022.