The Buzz About Medical Marijuana

Lauren Koff
A growing body of research examines when and how cannabis can help.

Ohio approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes in 2016, and the first dispensaries were licensed in 2018. More states continue to legalize cannabis use for medical purposes and beyond—voters in six additional states approved its use in November. We’ve put together this primer from a growing body of research about when and how cannabis can help, as well as the best practices for using it.

A magical mystery weed?

Cannabis use is becoming more normalized among the older populations. As laws legalizing cannabis spread across the United States, the perception of risk associated with it has decreased. Studies have shown that some in the older adult population may continue use, restart cannabis use or initiate cannabis use for the first time.

“The greatest increase in marijuana use was observed among those in the older adult population 50 years or older, and those 65 years or older had the greatest increase in marijuana use in the older adult population,” according to a 2018 study published in the journal Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine. A concern of addiction, as well as a person’s medical history and other medications should be considered before adopting marijuana for medical use, which is permitted in Ohio.

Boomer madness?

Baby Boomers are perceiving cannabis to be less risky. A 2015 article in Drug & Alcohol Review reported on a qualitative study among Baby Boomers and determined that cannabis users perceived cannabis as having less adverse effects, a lower risk for addiction and better effectiveness for treating symptoms of medical conditions.

FDA Approved

“THC itself has proven medical benefits in particular formulations,” according to a report issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. THC, known formally as tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive component in cannabis that causes a user to get high. The drugs Marinol, Syndros and Cesamet, which contain synthetic THC, have been approved by the FDA for nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy. Marinol and Syndros have been approved for the treatment of weight loss in AIDS patients.

CBD for Seizures

The FDA has also approved Epidiolex, which contains a purified form of the drug substance cannabidiol, or CBD, for use in some seizure-related syndromes including Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome.

Cannabis and COVID

When it comes to cannabis consumption, there is a new reality in the COVID-19 world: Fragile lungs are at greater risk of being harmed by the virus. A directive was given “for people using cannabis, edible forms of cannabis should replace smoking or vaping” in a letter last year from the editors of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

For Cancer Patients

Cannabis can help during chemo. In adults with chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting it can be nearly impossible to eat anything, but evidence documented by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states “oral cannabinoids are effective antiemetics.” In other words, cannabis can help treat nausea during chemotherapy.

Cannabis and Chronic Pain

“Patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids are more likely to experience a clinically significant reduction in pain symptoms,” according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in a 2017 report.

Those with Multiple Sclerosis

Spasticity is a major concern for those with MS and cannabis shows promising results.

Cannabis can be life changing for adults with multiple sclerosis-related spasticity, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. “Short-term use of oral cannabinoids improves patient-reported spasticity symptoms,” the report states.

Improves Cognition

While there is a stigma that cannabis lowers cognition, that may not be true for adults using medical cannabis, which is often highly regulated and better controlled than cannabis purchased on the black market. In 2018, researchers reported in Frontiers of Pharmacology that cannabis may actually improve cognition. “Following three months of treatment … patients demonstrated improved task performance accompanied by changes in brain activation patterns within the cingulate cortex and frontal regions,” according to the report.

Dosage is Key

“Most of the adverse effects associated with cannabis usage are dose-related, so it is important to know the strength of the cannabis you are taking and to ‘start low and go slow,’” wrote Dr. Peter Grinspoon, in an April post for the Harvard Health blog. “Start with the lowest effective dose and take your time working your way up to a dose that alleviates your symptoms with a minimum of side effects,” Grinspoon advises.

Cannabis and PTSD

Researchers have found that post-traumatic stress disorder increases the risk of depression and suicide. However, an April report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology provides preliminary evidence that cannabis use may contribute to reducing the negative association that post-traumatic stress disorder has with severe depression and suicidal states.

CBD and Epilepsy

A review of many studies published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found strong evidence of CBD’s benefit for control of refractory seizures experienced by those who have epilepsy.