Medical marijuana — also called medical cannabis — is a term for derivatives of the Cannabis sativa plant that are used to relieve serious and chronic symptoms.
Cannabis sativa contains many active compounds, but two are of interest for medical purposes: THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is the primary ingredient in marijuana that makes people “high.”
Is medical marijuana legal in the U.S.?
U.S. federal law prohibits the use of whole plant Cannabis sativa or its derivatives for any purpose. CBD derived from the hemp plant (< 0.3% THC) is legal under federal law to consume.
Many states allow THC use for medical purposes. Federal law regulating marijuana supersedes state laws. Because of this, people may still be arrested and charged with possession in states where marijuana for medical use is legal.
When is medical marijuana appropriate?
Studies report that medical cannabis has possible benefit for several conditions. State laws vary in which conditions qualify people for treatment with medical marijuana. If you’re considering marijuana for medical use, check your state’s regulations.
Depending on the state, you may qualify for treatment with medical marijuana if you meet certain requirements and have a qualifying condition, such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Crohn’s disease
- Epilepsy and seizures
- Multiple sclerosis and muscle spasms
- Severe and chronic pain
- Severe nausea
If you are experiencing uncomfortable symptoms or side effects of medical treatment, especially pain and nausea, talk with your doctor about all your options before trying marijuana. Doctors may consider medical marijuana as an option if other treatments haven’t helped.
The potential medicinal properties of marijuana and its components have been the subject of research and heated debate for decades. THC itself has proven medical benefits in particular formulations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved THC-based medications, dronabinol (Marinol®) and nabilone (Cesamet®), prescribed in pill form for the treatment of nausea in patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy and to stimulate appetite in patients with wasting syndrome due to AIDS.
In addition, several other marijuana-based medications have been approved or are undergoing clinical trials. Nabiximols (Sativex®), a mouth spray that is currently available in the United Kingdom, Canada, and several European countries for treating the spasticity and neuropathic pain that may accompany multiple sclerosis, combines THC with another chemical found in marijuana called cannabidiol (CBD).
The FDA also approved a CBD-based liquid medication called Epidiolex® for the treatment of two forms of severe childhood epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. It’s being delivered to patients in a reliable dosage form and through a reproducible route of delivery to ensure that patients derive the anticipated benefits. CBD does not have the rewarding properties of THC.