We suddenly feel inundated with advertisements and information about medical marijuana. We’ve been invited to tea parties, seen friends recommend lotions and potions on social media, and gotten emails about a range of products that purportedly remedy every ailment from occasional sleeplessness to muscular dystrophy. To be honest, it’s all too much to consider when you know nothing about it.
That’s why we asked writer Sacha Cohen to dig into the facts and give us the 411. Here’s what she found.
Medical marijuana, or medical cannabis, is not what you may or may not have inhaled during college. For starters, it’s far more potent and, in cannabis-legal states, is being used to treat wide variety of ailments and serious diseases — from helping to manage chronic pain to reducing the frequency and severity of seizures in people with epilepsy.
“Cannabis receptors exist in virtually every brain region. In our body, it blankets our nervous system, muscles, tissues, organs, and bones, which is why cannabis is useful in treating all different kinds of diseases and symptoms,” says Dr. June Chin, D.O., an integrative cannabis physician in New York. “It’s not a silver bullet or a panacea, but can be very effective if used in an integrative/holistic approach with conventional treatments.”s
Medical cannabis is currently legal in 29 states as well as the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, with 17 additional states having legalized cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating cannabis extract. But because it’s illegal at the federal level, standardization and regulation are extremely difficult, if not next to impossible.
And despite acceptance in parts of the medical community, medical cannabis is still a source of controversy and confusion. That’s one reason that consumers can find clearing through the clutter of myths and misinformation pretty daunting.
Unpacking the CBD Mystery
The first step on the road to canna-knowledge is becoming familiar with a few key terms like “cannabinoid,” which refers to the chemical compounds secreted by cannabis flowers. Research into these compounds has found that they can provide relief for an array of symptoms including pain, nausea, anxiety, and inflammation.
Cannabis contains more than 100 types of cannabinoids — including two of the best known: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, and CBD. Simply put: THC is the compound in cannabis that gets you high. CBD, which is not psychoactive, doesn’t. Even though CBD doesn’t get you stoned, measurable doses are still illegal under federal law.
Leafly.com, one of the larger and better-known online resources for cannabis breaks it down like this:
- THC-dominant strains are primarily chosen by consumers seeking a potent euphoric experience. These strains are also selected by patients treating pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and more.
- CBD-dominant strains contain only small amounts of THC and are widely used by those highly sensitive to THC or patients needing clear-headed symptom relief.
- Balanced THC/CBD strains contain balanced levels of THC, offering mild euphoria alongside symptom relief.
While the terms “sativa” and “indica” are commonly used to describe the properties of a given strain — sativa purportedly is more uplifting and produces euphoria, while indica is believed to be more sedating — recent research suggests that these terms refer more to the shape of the plants themselves. Another term you’ll probably start hearing more about is “terpene,” which is a fragrant oil emitted from cannabis plants (as well as many other herbs, fruits, and plants). Terpenes produce a wide variety of smells, from sweet and citrusy to woodsy and musky, and have their own purported medical effects.
Medical marijuana can be inhaled, ingested, or taken as a pill. It’s even being used in topicals that may help with things like inflammation and pain, although the research in this area isn’t as extensive. Edibles take much longer to enter the system, so it’s more difficult to predict their effects and they should be used with caution and under close supervision.
A Doctor’s Advice About CBDs
Dr. Jordan Tishler, M.D., a Harvard physician and cannabis therapeutics specialist based in Massachusetts, advises women new to medical cannabis to pay particular attention to the following:
- Dosing is everything. “Patients generally benefit from much lower doses than recreational users use, and may be misled by recreational users’ experience or guidance,” says Dr. Tishler. “Five to 10 milligrams of THC component is usually all that is needed.”
- Edibles are not a substitute for inhaled cannabis. Each route produces different effect: inhaled is quick and of modest duration, edible (oral) has unpredictable onset and long duration. “For episodic needs, inhaled is better, for constant pain oral has advantages — and often for severe pain, a combination of both works best,” he says.
- Watch out for rip-offs. “There are many BS products out there to separate you from your money,” says Tishler, like sublingual tinctures and topicals. “CBD is probably the biggest rip-off. It’s remarkably expensive, and at the doses available, has been shown to be pure placebo for most adults. Also some products are not safe — like oil-cartridge vape pens. Please avoid those, even when the dispensary folks tell you it’s OK.”
The old adage caveat emptor definitely applies to medical marijuana. Since it’s illegal at the federal level, the FDA does not conduct safety testing on medical cannabis plants or products, “safety regulation falls to the individual states which have adopted medical marijuana legislation,” says Dr. Tishler.
Lastly, Dr. Chin urges anyone who is thinking about using medical cannabis to seek proper medical care. “We now have an option that wasn’t available to us before. Patients should seek out an integrative cannabis specialist — and don’t take no for an answer if you reach a dead end with your own doctor.”
Medical Marijuana Myths
Dr. Christine Boudreau, M.D., who works with online medical cannabis advisory service PrestoDoctor.com, clears up some additional medical cannabis myths.
Most people who use medical cannabis just want to get high.
False. Most patients I see are either on or have tried a prescription medication that either did not provide adequate relief, caused significant side effects, or both. Many specifically request to be guided toward something that will not make them high.
CBD (cannabidiol) is more “medicinal” than THC.
False. Both are very effective medications. There are times when CBD is more effective — for example, for the treatment of seizures. However, THC is more effective when treating nausea and decreased appetite in patients with cancer.
Cannabis is not addictive.
False. Cannabis has an addiction rate of 9 percent. Comparatively, alcohol and tobacco have addiction rates of 15 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
You cannot overdose on cannabis.
True and False. You do not have enough cannabis receptors in the breathing centers in your brain to make you stop breathing. However, it is possible to overmedicate, and that could be dangerous. For example, THC increases heart rate. If you are 22 years old, this is usually not an issue. However, an older woman who has a significantly increased heart rate for an extended amount of time due to a potent edible could have a heart attack.
This article is for informational purposes only. The Fine Line editors suggest you consult a trusted medical professional before injesting any type of medication, including medical cannabis.
Sacha Cohen is founder and president of Grassfed Media. To see more of her work, go to grassfedmediadc.com.