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Medicinal Marijuana: A Continuing Controversy

Part 1 of 2: Debated in Both Political and Medical Arenas


Updated June 30, 2011

This article is part of the Arthritis Archives.

Dateline: August 12, 1997

The medicalization of marijuana and the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes are separate issues. It is the belief of proponents that it should be structured and governed as separate issues. In June 2005, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in a 6-3 decision that people whose doctors have prescribed marijuana for medical purposes can be arrested and prosecuted, overriding medicinal marijuana statutes in 10 states.

Medicinal Marijuana Debate

In recent years, the controversy over the use of marijuana for medical purposes has been debated in both political and medical arenas. Due to the social stigma that is attached to the recreational use of marijuana, the potential benefit that could result from its use as a medicine is being argued.

Medicinal Marijuana: The Benefits

There has been definite evidence that marijuana is beneficial:

  • in the treatment of cancer to relieve the nausea caused by chemotherapy
  • for AIDS wasting syndrome
  • to relieve muscle spasms and tremors in people with multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries
  • to treat glaucoma by reducing intraocular pressure
  • to treat chronic pain

In 1986, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug in pill form which contains THC, a component found in marijuana, for treatment of the nausea due to cancer chemotherapy. It has been determined though that the pill, which is called Marinol (Dronabinol, THC), acts differently than smoked marijuana and is not as effective.

Marijuana also has been found useful in the treatment of arthritis. Aspirin, which is commonly used for arthritis is believed to cause more than 1,000 deaths annually in the United States. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which also are routinely used for arthritis treatment cause more than 7,600 annual deaths and 70,000 hospitalizations. The gastrointestinal complications of NSAIDs are the most commonly reported serious adverse drug reaction. Long-term use of tylenol (acetaminophen) is thought to be one of the common causes of end-stage renal disease. Marijuana smoked several times a day is often as effective as NSAIDs or acetaminophen in arthritis treatment, and without any reports of death.

Medicinal Marijuana: The Potential Harm

The possible harmful effects of chronic marijuana use has been studied by federal government funded studies. In 1988, scientists found receptors for THC in the parts of the brain controlling:

  • memory
  • mood
  • visual processing
  • attentiveness
  • the ability to filter out extraneous stimuli

This helped explain the effects on coordination and short-term memory. It also clarified the impossibility of taking a fatal dose of marijuana since there are hardly any THC receptors in portions of the brain that control consciousness and respiration.

For years the effect of marijuana on the respiratory system of long-term marijuana users was studied. It was revealed that smoking marijuana is even more damaging to the lungs than tobacco smoking. Marijuana smoke has 50 to 70 percent more known carcinogens than tobacco smoke. Marijuana smokers were found to have more microscopic damage to the lung's defense against inhaled contaminants and microbes, and also more precancerous cellular changes.

Schedule 1 vs. Schedule 2 Drug

Currently marijuana has the status of a Schedule 1 drug which means it is considered to be potentially addictive with no current medical use. It has been proposed that marijuana be changed to a Schedule 2 drug which means it would be considered potentially addictive with some accepted medical use. In 1986, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) held extensive hearings about the proposed change. The DEA's own administrative-law judge concluded "it would be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence". The DEA however overruled the judge's order to transfer marijuana to Schedule 2, and in 1992 issued a final rejection of all requests for reclassification.

Go to Part 2 --- Medicinal Marijuana: A Continuing Controversy --->

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