Medical marijuana refers to the whole unprocessed marijuana plant or basic extracts which are used to treat symptoms or a disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved marijuana as a plant for medicinal purposes. Two FDA-approved medications which contain cannabinoid chemicals in pill form are available following scientific research. Learn more about the medicinal benefits and uses of marijuana.

Why Approval Lags

The FDA requires carefully conducted studies (clinical trials) in hundreds to thousands of human subjects to determine benefits and risks of possible medication. Researchers do not have enough large-scale clinical trials which show the benefits of the marijuana plant outweigh potential risks to people it is trying to help.

Role of Cannabinoids

Cannabinoids are chemicals related to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), marijuana’s main mind-altering ingredient. Other than THC, the marijuana plant contains more than 100 other cannabinoids. Scientists as well as illegal manufacturers have produced cannabinoids in the lab. Some are powerful and led to serious health effects when used. The body produces its own cannabinoid chemicals which play a role in regulation of pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, body movement, awareness of time, appetite, pain and the five senses.

Uses of Cannabinoids

Two main cannabinoids from the marijuana plant are of medical interest including THC and CBD.

THC – the drug increases appetite and reduces nausea. The FDA-approved THC-based medications are used for those purposes. THC may also decrease pain, inflammation (swelling and redness) and muscle control problems.

CBD – is a cannabinoid that does not affect the mind or behavior. It may be useful in reduction of pain and inflammation, controlling epileptic seizures and possibly even treating mental illness and addictions.

Recent animal studies have shown marijuana extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others. Evidence from one cell culture study suggests purified extracts from whole-plant marijuana may slow growth of cancer cells from serious brain tumors. Some preclinical and clinical trials with marijuana and its extracts are being used to help the following:

  • Autoimmune diseases such as AIDS, MS or Alzheimer’s
  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Substance use disorders
  • Mental disorders

Medications with Cannabinoids

Two FDA-approved drugs including dronabinol and nabilone contain THC. Nausea is treated that is caused by chemotherapy and increased appetite in people with extreme weight loss caused by AIDS. the UK, Canada and several European countries have approved nabiximols, a mouth spray containing THC and CBD. It treats muscle control problems caused by MS. The US is conducting clinical trials for safe use in treating cancer pain.

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