Marijuana is an ancient medicine with dozens of modern applications. This is a deep dive into how people are using marijuana medicine.
Medicinal Marijuana Uses
Cannabis is a controversial medication. The first state to legalize medical marijuana did so back in 1996 (thanks, California!) and since then our understanding of this plant and its medicinal application has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, 40 states and Washington DC have legalized medical marijuana use in some form.
But what do people actually use weed as medicine for? What conditions can cannabis help with, and is there research to back it up? We’ve compiled an inexhaustive list of the most common medical conditions associated with medicinal cannabis use and even included what the research has to say. There’s no speculation here- just cold hard research.
History of Marijuana Medicine
Cannabis is a truly ancient plant that has evolved alongside humans. The first recorded use of medicinal cannabis dates back to 2,800 BCE in China. Emperor Shen Nung, who is considered the father of Chinese medicine, included cannabis (or “ma”) in his pharmacopeia. He noted that weed could help with rheumatism, menstrual problems, gout, malaria, and “absent-mindedness.”
Cannabis is mentioned in another ancient text, this one from India. Bhang, as it’s called, is included in The Vedas, sacred Hindu texts from around 2,000 BCE. Not only was ganja considered to be a “joy-giver” thanks to its psychoactive properties, but it was also used to treat many ailments. These included insomnia, pain, and gastrointestinal disorders. Dried cannabis was often mixed with milk and other spices to create a medicinal beverage.
Around the same time, cannabis was being used in ancient Egypt in a familiar way – to treat glaucoma. Ancient Egyptians also used the plant to treat inflammation, “cool the uterus” and to treat hemorrhoids.
The ancient Greeks used cannabis in a cleaning ritual that ended with them throwing the plant on burning embers in an enclosed space and breathing it in. (Whether this is considered the first hotboxing is up to you.) Cannabis was also widely used in the ancient Arabic world as an analgesic and an aesthetic and used to treat ailments from migraines to syphilis.
The medicinal powers of cannabis have long been understood by our ancestors. But today, science is confirming what pot lovers have known all along- it is powerful medicine.
Scientists are still working on understanding the depth and breadth of the healing power of marijuana. As prohibition continues to roll back across the US and countries all over the world, more research can be conducted and more funds allocated to understanding this incredibly powerful plant.
Why Does Cannabis Have Medicinal Benefits?
Why does cannabis have such incredible effects on and in our bodies? It comes down to the endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a complex regulatory system that has receptors throughout your body. The purpose of the ECS is to help you stay healthy, or to keep your body in a state of homeostasis. The ECS touches nearly every biological function you have, from pain and memory formation to sleep patterns, appetite, hormone regulation, and more.
The ECS was only discovered in the 1990s, and cannabis prohibition has hampered research efforts. But as changes in cannabis law sweep the country, our understanding of the ECS and body of research is growing. Today, scientists believe that many conditions are caused, partially or entirely, by a dysregulation of the ECS. An overactive or underactive ECS has a ripple effect on your health. Many of the conditions mentioned below are now believed to be due to a dysregulated endocannabinoid system.
Research has shown that the ECS plays an essential role in every aspect of your health, from skin and gut health to organ function and muscle recovery.
Administration Methods for Medical Marijuana
One of the reasons cannabis has such a wide medical application is because of the various administration methods. Different consumption or administration methods are more effective for some conditions than others. Smoking cannabis has a different medical application than topicals or suppositories (and yes, smoking weed has a medical application!)
Ways to consume cannabis:
- Pills and capsules
Each method of cannabis use has specific benefits that can help people with a wide variety of conditions. For instance, smoking a joint delivers quick relief for a cancer patient with nausea, while a transdermal patch that releases cannabinoids for six hours may work better for someone with sciatica.
You also don’t have to get high to benefit from cannabis. Non-intoxicating cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD), and products free of cannabinoids, like hemp seed oil, also have medicinal applications. We have truly only scratched the surface of what this plant is capable of in a medicinal application.
Examples of Medical Marijuana Uses
Medical cannabis references the entire plant as well as any isolates or derivatives made from it. While weed has hundreds of compounds, the two most common currently in use are cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC).
This is not an exhaustive list of all of the potential medical uses of cannabis-derived products, and should not be taken as a complete list. The conditions listed here are among the most common uses for medical cannabis.
Like all medications, cannabis can have side effects and interact with other pharmaceuticals. Talk to your doctor before starting to consume cannabis medicinally.
Arthritis is the general name for a family of inflammatory joint conditions. There are over 100 types of arthritis and can be caused by genetics or lifestyle. Symptoms of arthritis vary depending on the type, but almost always include swelling, stiffness, pain, and reduced range of motion in the affected joints. Types of arthritis that may benefit from medical marijuana uses include gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.
Researchers are examining new ways to target and activate the ECS to treat different kinds of arthritis, and early animal studies have encouraged enthusiasm.
- One study conducted with rats showed that CBD could prevent pain and nerve damage associated with osteoarthritis.
- Another study with human patients in Lebanon found that a genetic mutation in a specific ECS receptor can increase your risk for rheumatoid arthritis 10-fold.
Today, scientists believe that joint inflammation may be due to an imbalance in your endocannabinoid system. Since cannabinoid drugs are able to act as an anti-inflammatories in the body, it’s a promising new avenue for treatment for pain.
Anxiety is a common condition for medical patients. But when treating anxiety with marijuana use, the biphasic effects of cannabis and the individuality of the endocannabinoid system are incredibly important.
THC and CBD have biphasic effects – they produce one effect at low doses and an opposite effect at high doses. Low doses of cannabis can help reduce anxiety levels, but high doses can actually exacerbate it with side effects like increased heart rate and paranoia.
And research agrees with this; a study trying to find which weed is the most anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) has shown that cannabis can have different effects on anxiety depending on the dose, cannabinoid balance, and administration method. When using cannabis products for anxiety, the balance of cannabidiol and THC in the plant chemotype, as well as the terpene profile, are quite important to consider for optimal results.
Weed is well-known as a remedy for chemotherapy-induced nausea and managing cancer-related pain, but did you know that several cannabinoids and terpenes actually have anti-cancer properties?
Most studies on this topic have not yet reached human trials, but the lab results are promising. A 2017 review of research on marijuana’s effect on 10 different types of cancer examined studies that included brain, colon, stomach, liver, pancreatic, breast, prostate, lung, thyroid, and skin cancer and concluded that despite the limitations, “these studies showed that cannabinoids may be safe and effective [anti-cancer drugs].”
Studies have shown that cannabis can actually decrease tumor growth in certain types of cancer and protect healthy cells, something current treatments are unable to do.
Cancer is an area of research where weed has a broad application. Cannabis medications are currently used to mitigate the side effects of cancer treatment, but one day, cancer patients may be able to take cannabis-based medications alongside other cancer treatments to get better faster.
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One of the main benefits of cannabinoids like THC and CBD is their ability to reduce inflammation. Reducing inflammation can reduce pain on its own, but these cannabinoids can also act as pain relievers as well.
- A 2019 study on qualifying conditions for an ID card for medical marijuana use found that chronic pain was the single most common condition, with over 67% of responses.
- A review published in 2015 examined 28 different studies on cannabis. Researchers concluded there was “moderate-quality evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain.”
Consuming marijuana to help with depression is similar to treating anxiety in that it is a common condition for medical marijuana patients, but requires careful dosing and tracking to optimize rather than exacerbate. The mood-boosting effects of THC can be particularly important for treating depression, but it’s a balance of not relying on the plant too much and using it in an optimal way.
The biphasic effects of THC mean that high doses of weed may make depressive symptoms worse. But there are also studies that show with proper dosing and the right cannabinoid ratio, cannabis can be an effective treatment for depression.
And if consuming cannabis doesn't really appeal to you, just gardening activities, like growing weed in soil, have been shown to reduce depression, anxiety and body mass index while boosting perception of life satisfaction and life quality.
Also called atopic dermatitis, eczema is an incredibly common inflammatory skin condition that causes itchiness, dry or peeling skin, rashes, scaly patches, blisters, and even infections. Activating the endocannabinoid receptors in your skin may help with managing eczema.
- A clinical trial from 2005 treated people with eczema with hempseed oil for 20 weeks and found that the oil improved symptoms of the eczema.
- A rodent study tested mice with and without endocannabinoid receptors and found that “[the ECS has]…a protective role in contact allergy in the skin and suggests a target for therapeutic intervention.”
- A 2019 study investigated the effects of CBD ointment on skin diseases including eczema. Patients had to apply the ointment twice a day for 3 months, and researchers found that CBD ointment was “a safe and effective non-invasive alternative for improving the quality of life in patients with some skin disorders.” They also noted that there were no irritants or allergic reactions.
Also called seizure disorders or spasticity, epilepsy is a common neurological disorder. Seizures happen when nerve cell activity in the brain is disturbed. Epilepsy is one of the only conditions on this list that has an FDA-approved cannabis-based medication, Epidiolex is made from a cannabidiol isolate and was approved in 2018.
CBD’s effect on seizures is still not fully understood by scientists, but with an FDA-approved medication, research can move faster. A placebo-controlled study from 2018 tested 20 mg of CBD on 120 people, and found the group that received the CBD medication (versus the placebo) had a 39% reduction in monthly seizures.
Glaucoma is the general name for a group of eye conditions where the nerve that connects the eye to the brain is damaged due to high eye pressure. It has been a popular diagnosis for medical patients and a common stoner joke ever since 1971 when studies first found that marijuana can reduce inner-eye pressure.
Scientists now know that this is because the endocannabinoid system plays a role in controlling eye pressure, making cannabis consumption a viable prescription for dealing with glaucoma. Interestingly, smoking weed has the fastest effect on reducing inner eye pressure.
Weed can help almost everyone sleep, and is a common reason people in recreational markets consume cannabis. But from a medicinal standpoint, it can be an effective treatment for insomnia. Your endocannabinoid system is a regulator of your sleep cycle and can play a part in the quality of your sleep as well as how long it takes you to fall asleep.
Inducing sleep is a famous effect of THC. This cannabinoid can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep, which is hugely beneficial to people with insomnia. However, tetrahydrocannabinol can also have negative effects on sleep, like increasing sleep disturbances. THC also reduces the time spent in REM sleep. REM is the cycle of sleep where dreaming occurs and is an important part of the sleep cycle. But for people with PTSD who have reoccurring or vivid nightmares, this can be a benefit.
CBD can also be helpful for sleep but in different ways. CBD doesn’t help you fall asleep but can help you get better quality of sleep and feel more awake in the morning. However, low doses of CBD can be wakeful. The general consensus for people without clinical insomnia is that cannabis can improve sleep in the short term, but provide long-term disruptions.
CBN or Cannabinol, is also gaining traction in research studies as a resource for treating insomnia. CBN is different from CBD as it is slightly psychoactive. CBN is actually what's left when THC begins to degrade. That's why sometimes old weed makes you extra sleepy! If you are growing your own weed at home to help you sleep, we highly recommend letting it go a little past peak THC harvest to get higher percentages of CBN.
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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome is one of the most common ailments in the US, affecting a staggering 10 – 15% of the population with upset tummies. Despite this, there are few medications for IBS and they typically have many side effects.
As in all other systems, your endocannabinoid system plays a big role in your gut health and digestive system, making it a target for treating IBS symptoms. There is little research on cannabis and IBS specifically, but studies have shownthat cannabinoids can treat some of the issues of IBS, like gut inflammation and hypersensitivity. We also know that cannabis can help reduce pain and nausea, two symptoms many people with IBS deal with.
Anecdotally, IBS has been named in surveys of people in Australia who consume cannabis medicinally without a prescription. As plant lovers know, science often takes a while to catch up with consumer knowledge.
Menstrual Cycle Pain
The ancient Egyptians knew – the marijuana plant can be an important tool for people dealing with the menstrual cycle and period pain. Your ovaries, uterus, cervix, and vagina all have endocannabinoid receptors, which makes cannabis a potential treatment for “the monthlies” as well as conditions like endometriosis.
Marijuana’s effect on menstrual pain is a combination of many of its medical abilities, including reducing pain, inflammation, and nausea, and inducing appetite. The mood-boosting properties of THC can also be helpful to women who suffer from mood swings during hormonal changes. But you can also target the ECS receptors in your reproductive organs with administration methods like cannabis suppositories.
A 2002 review by famed cannabis scientist Dr. Ethan Russo systematically combs through all of the thousands of years of known historical uses for cannabis in obstetrics and gynecology (even before these fields had those names) highlighting the importance of cannabis to our female ancestors and showcasing its safety and efficacy.
Migraines are a condition that scientists are currently investigating as an endocannabinoid deficiency. Since migraines are so perverse and debilitating, the potential for a new system of treatment is exciting.
Migraines are not just “severe headaches” but a wholly separate neurological disease that can be extremely disruptive to daily life. Migraine triggers can be complex, spontaneous, and frustrating to deal with because head pain is just one of the symptoms.
A study from 2019 reported that 88% of participants experienced cannabis-related improvement in their migraine symptoms, with an average migraine reduction of 42%.
A 2016 study in two Colorado specialty clinics of medical marijuana for people with migraines found it was effective in 85% of participants and concluded that “frequency of migraine headache was decreased with medical marijuana use” and that cannabis users could actually stop a migraine attack from progressing. Surprisingly, edibles were the least effective administration method. Dealing with migraines is an instance where smoking or vaping cannabis would be the most medically efficient consumption method due to the quick onset.
Nausea and Intractable Wasting Syndrome
Perhaps the best known use of medical cannabis is to combat nausea. This positive effect of marijuana use was well-known by our ancestors but came back into general knowledge during the AIDS crisis when people with intractable wasting syndrome (cachexia, in medical terms) regained their appetite after smoking pot. Weed's reputation as a medication fit for modern medicine began to blossom when it was used to help patients combat nausea and vomiting after cancer chemotherapy.
In fact, both THC and CBD products work for reducing nausea, and THC is a more effective regulator for nausea than some pharmaceuticals, such as ondansetron. The endocannabinoid system is a major regulator of nausea and the vomiting reflex, so it makes sense that cannabis could help. Regulating nausea is also one of the applications where smoking weed is the best delivery method.
Psoriasis is an inflammatory autoimmune disorder that affects the skin. Skin cells build up on the surface of the skin and cause scaly rashes and dry, itchy patches. Psoriasis is a common condition that can be painful and disruptive to daily life. Like many pharmaceutical options, psoriasis drugs often have many side effects.
A 2019 study examined the effects of CBD ointment on people with skin diseases, including psoriasis. After 3 months, researchers concluded that CBD ointment is “a safe and effective non-invasive alternative for improving the quality of life in patients with some skin disorders.” Which is really cool because you can grow your own high CBD, low THC weed for homemade CBD salves-- an accessibility of medication not common with other drugs.
There are many studies that have examined using cannabinoids to treat inflammation, one of the key processes in psoriasis, and researchers have concluded that cannabis has beneficial health effects. Cannabis-based medications can also be useful in reducing itching.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that is historically poorly understood (After World War I, soldiers were said to be “shell-shocked.”) Today, scientists believe that PTSD symptoms may be linked to an ECS deficiency. The endocannabinoid system plays a large role in processing emotions, including fear and stress. An imbalance of endocannabinoids may decrease emotional processing, retain negative emotions, and increase the frequency of nightmares.
Intentional cannabis use can help veterans and other people who suffer from PTSD navigate anxiety and depression, improve negative moods, and get better sleep by suppressing the REM sleep cycle, which reduces nightmares.
- A 2017 Canadian study found that 77% of participants who consumed marijuana had reduced PTSD symptoms after 10 months.
- A 2014 study in New Mexico found and 75% reduction in PTSD symptoms in marijuana consumers versus people who did not consume.
Sciatica is a specific type of chronic leg pain that originates in the sciatic nerve. In addition to being painful, sciatica can also cause numbness, weakness, or tingling. It is a common ailment that is caused by pressure on or injury to the sciatic nerve.
While there are limited studies on sciatica specifically, it is a type of neuropathic pain, which marijuana has been well-researched on. Research has found that cannabis is effective at controlling and managing chronic pain CBD alone can reduce pain without causing a tolerance build-up.
This is not a comprehensive list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. Medicinal cannabis products can also be used to help manage ADHD, autism, addiction, Parkinson’s disease, headaches, menopause, TMJ, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, and even more.
Current Types of Cannabis-Based Medicines on the Market
Medical marijuana can be prescribed by a doctor in some form for certain conditions in 40 states as well as Washington DC. It is important to look into regulations where you live as it does vary.
Some states are more accepting of the plant than others. In certain medical cannabis programs, you can get raw plant materials as well as a variety of processed products, and in others, you can get products like vape cartridges and edibles. Some states allow medical patients and Caregivers to grow their own cannabis plants as a more sustainable way for patients to access their medicine directly instead of going to a dispensary. In the most limited medical marijuana programs, you can only get FDA-approved cannabis-based medicines and “high THC” CBD oil that is often hemp-derived.
FDA-Approved CBD Medications
Epidiolex is the only FDA-approved CBD medication. It contains a cannabidiol isolate and is used to treat seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome or Dravet syndrome.
FDA-Approved THC Medications
There are three medications on the market that contain a synthetic form of THC, or a synthetic cannabinoids chemicals similar to THC. All of these medications are used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.
- Marinol (contains dronabinol, synthetic THC)
- Syndros (contain dronabinol, synthetic THC)
- Cesamet (contains nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid similar to THC)
The FDA has not approved any uses for the Cannabis sativa plant or medicinal cannabis products. Since the federal government still considers cannabis a Schedule I substance, the plant itself cannot the used in medications and research is limited.
Does Medical Marijuana Have Side Effects?
Yes. Like all medications and any substance you consume, marijuana can have side effects.
Side effects of medicinal marijuana uses can be challenging to predict because everyone’s endocannabinoid system is unique – like a fingerprint. These side effects can range from mild to severe, depending on your dose, frequency of consumption, genetics, and personal endocannabinoid system.
Side effects of medical marijuana may include:
- Dry mouth (also called cotton mouth)
- Dry or red eyes
- Impaired coordination
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Challenges concentrating or with short-term memory
- Delayed reaction time
There is also two negative conditions associated with cannabis use: CHS, or Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, and cannabis use disorder. Again, highlighting that not every medication works for everybody.
FAQ about Medical Marijuana
What is marijuana used for medication?
Marijuana can be used as medicine in any form. This includes raw plant form (the flower), cannabis-based products like tinctures and topical treatments, or pharmaceutical forms like Epidiolex.
What are the names of the medical marijuana medications?
The FDA has approved four cannabis-based medicines: Epidiolex (CBD isolate), Marionl (synthetic THC), Syndros (synthetic THC), and Cesment (a synthetic chemical similar to THC.)
What are the side effects of medical marijuana?
Like all substances, medical marijuana can have side effects. These may be positive, like euphoria, or negative, like dry mouth, red eyes, increased heart rate, and paranoia. Many of the side effects are dose-dependent and do not occur as frequently with lower doses.
What are the benefits of marijuana on the brain?
Cannabis can have many benefits for the brain. Your endocannabinoid system has many receptors; the most well-known are CB1 and CB2. CB1 is the most abundant receptor in the brain, outnumbering all other receptor types. THC interacts directly with the CB1 receptor, which is responsible for many of the effects of cannabis.
What is medical marijuana most used for?
Medical marijuana can be used for many disorders and ailments. Common medical conditions that are treated with medical marijuana include seizure disorders, cancer and chemotherapy-related nausea, PTSD, chronic or debilitating pain, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and arthritis.
What are 4 ways marijuana is used for medical purposes?
Marijuana can be used in many ways. Some of the most common ways it's used to help people is to: prevent seizures in people with epilepsy, reduce PTSD episodes, stop chemotherapy-related vomiting, and induce sleep for people with insomnia.
What are the pros and cons of medical marijuana?
Like all medications, there are positives and negatives to medical marijuana. Because your endocannabinoid system is unique to you like a fingerprint, these pros and cons are deeply personal and can be hard to predict. Always talk with a qualified medical professional before adding cannabis to your medication.
What are the medicinal benefits of marijuana legalization?
Medical marijuana legalization opens an entire world of treatment to people where it becomes legal. Marijuana has been a staple of historical medical practices in the ancient world and has many benefits for people suffering mentally and physically. Every time a new state or country creates a medical marijuana program, people have more options to treat and heal themselves without opioids.
What are the different types of medical marijuana?
Medical marijuana comes in different forms depending on where you live. In some medical cannabis programs, you can access raw plant materials, processed products like tinctures, and pharmaceutical forms for medication. In other states, you can only access processed products like tinctures and balms, and pharmaceuticals, and in certain states, only FDA-approved cannabis-based medications are available.