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What We Talk About When We Talk About Medical Marijuana

You know what marijuana is. It's the beloved worldwide plant with countless associations -- stoner films, reggae music, and philosophical breakthroughs. But now, marijuana is being taken seriously as not only a drug with a powerful mind-altering component (THC, or delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), but as a plant whose extracts can be harnessed for good. What good, you ask?

It's not the first time plants have been used for medical purposes -- they've been used across Eastern and Western traditions to cure everything from indigestion to a bad cough for thousands of years.

In the minds of doctors, marijuana is just another herbal remedy. Small scale studies have shown its success combatting the symptoms of nausea, vomiting, arthritic pain, and PTSD. However, the FDA is not quick to approve because there are not enough large-scale clinical trials -- and marijuana still has a bad reputation. The FDA is slowly warming up to cannabis as studies continue to show promising results. It approved two medications that contain cannabinoids (the chemicals in marijuana) -- dronabinol and nabilone.

So...will it make me high?

THC does make you high, but for medical use, it also increases the appetite, reduces nausea and decreases inflammation. CBD is another cannabinoid of interest, which does not cause any mind-altering effects and is linked to treating conditions such as childhood epilepsy.

Can it cure cancer?

Trials are still in early stages, but based on animal research, marijuana extracts have been shown to reduce cancer cell growth and size. Early clinical trials show that marijuana can be used safely in cancer treatment, but is inconclusive in showing its ability to control or cure the disease. Cannabinoid drugs can be helpful in combatting the side effects of chemotherapy.

What about the side effects?

If you have paranoia, depression, or another mental illness, you may want to look for another form of treatment, as medical marijuana can exacerbate these symptoms. Besides that, patients report increased heart rate, dizziness and fainting. Sometimes there can be hallucinations.

What's holding more research back?

In the United States, marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance. This means it is not approved for medical use and has a high abuse potential -- it's in the same class as heroin. This imposes limitations on research, because not all states have made dispensing medical marijuana legal.

In brief.

Medical marijuana is not recreational marijuana. It's distributed in a controlled environment and directed at treating specific symptoms (not having a chill time with your friends). While it shows a lot of promise in managing pain and nausea, clinical trials are small-scale and need further support. Medical marijuana will become more mainstream when large-scale studies reveal real data. Maybe that'll give the FDA a nudge. In the meantime, we hope you've enjoyed this healthcare brief.

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