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Medical Marijuana for Chronic Pain

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Updated April 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Research examining the risks and benefits of marijuana use for pain has made strides in recent years. As of July 2010, not all the questions have been answered, but a number of influential medical associations are beginning to issue statements in support of marijuana and its derivatives for pain management.

Current Status

 

Marijuana is the leading cash crop in the US and a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This designation means it has a lot of potential for abuse, and no medicinal value. Yet, Marinol, a medication approved by the FDA, is classified as a Schedule III drug. Marinol contains a synthetic version of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. As a Schedule III drug, Marinol is regarded as medicinal, with less potential for abuse. The FDA approved Marinol to help stimulate the appetite in people with AIDS and to treat nausea due to chemotherapy. According to the Americans for Safe Access Foundation, a pro medical marijuana advocacy group in Oakland, California, the natural form of this drug contains many more cannabinoids (in addition to the THC) than synthetic Marinol, and consequently delivers more therapeutic benefits. Cannabinoids are other active ingredients found in marijuana.

In recent years, there's been increased activity on the part of the scientific community in the area of cannabinoids for pain and other medical conditions. A number of prominent health organizations have issued favorable statements regarding the benefits and lack of side effects of medical marijuana. For example, Britain's House of Lords says:

There is scientific evidence that cannabinoids possess pain ­relieving properties, and some clinical evidence to support their medical use in this indication.

In a 2001 Amicus brief supporting medical marijuana in Northern California, the American Public Health Association says:

Recent government sponsored commissions have concluded that marijuana has therapeutic properties not replicated by other currently available medications...the side effects of marijuana are typically less severe than side effects associated with currently authorized medications.

Research has shown that overall the safety profile of medical marijuana is good. But smoking anything is bad for your health. Several companies are now developing alternative routes of administration for medical marijuana. In the future, you may be able to take medical marijuana under your tongue or by inhaling a fine mist for your pain.

 

Background

The use of medical marijuana began in 2700 BC, coinciding with the birth of Chinese medicine. It continued uninterrupted for centuries. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria's doctor prescribed it to her (for menstrual cramps). About the drug he wrote, "When pure and administered carefully, [it is] one of the of the most valuable medicines we possess." Medical marijuana was widely prescribed in the US until around 1900.

According to the Americans for Safe Access Foundation, the first US federal law prohibiting medical marijuana was enacted in 1937. The AMA opposed the legislation, citing no evidence of danger associated with its use, and perhaps great benefits. In 1942, it was taken off the market. ASAF reports that the US currently grows and provides marijuana for a handful of patients left over from a now defunct compassionate-access research program begun in 1976.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project, every major commission on the subject recommends that possession not be treated as a crime. But possessing or using even a very small amount is a felony under federal law, and can result in at least a year in jail.

Since 1976, 36 states have enacted laws favorable to medical patients seeking to use marijuana. Many of these laws are symbolic and won't protect you if you are caught using the drug. But 14 states have decriminalized marijuana for medical patients who use cannibals under doctor supervision. As of July 2010, the 14 states are: California, Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Colorado, Nevada, Vermont, Montana, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Michigan, and New Jersey. These states have made laws that override the federal law. In most, you can also grow your medicinal marijuana.

Recently the Dept. of Justice sent a memo to practicing US attorneys saying that law-abiding medical marijuana users who live in decriminalized states should not be prosecuted by the federal government. Most marijuana arrests are made at the local and state levels, anyway. Federal marijuana law enforcement efforts are generally focused on large growing operations. Just the same, it's important to note that on the record at least, the federal law does not make exceptions for medical patients.

State laws are great for protecting you from penalty if you use medical marijuana, but they don't play a role in creating or maintaining drug standards. State laws don't guarantee purity, potency, quality or accurate labeling of any medical marijuana product.

 

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