Does Medical Marijuana Do More Harm Than Good?

Does Medical Marijuana Do More Harm Than Good?

Seventeen states (and D.C.) have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, yet the debate still rages as to whether the drug is a detriment or a benefit to patients. The activists state that marijuana can help chemotherapy patients, people with glaucoma, those suffering from multiple sclerosis, and even AIDS patients. Opponents contest that the risks of marijuana being a “gateway” drug, increasing usage amongst the population, increasing rates of schizophrenia, and affecting the immune systems of patients outweigh its reported benefits.

Why Use Marijuana as a Medicine?

Understanding the basic effects of marijuana helps you understand its potential for use as a medicine. The drug mimics the natural neurotransmitter anandamide, which stimulates receptors for motor functioning, nausea and vomiting, pain management, memory, and internal eye pressure. By affecting these same receptors, marijuana can (and has been shown to) reduce pain, relieve eye pressure, soothe nausea or vomiting, and control muscle spasms. In addition to these basic effects, the drug contains over 400 other chemicals and has been claimed to also help with asthma, alcoholism, insomnia, and Alzheimer’s disease, amongst others.

Virtually all medications can be taken in sufficient quantities to overdose. In fact, you could consume enough of certain foods and risk killing yourself. If you have a headache, you wouldn’t hesitate to take a couple of Tylenol to ease the pain, because unless you take twenty tablets (ten times the average dose) you likely won’t do lasting damage to your liver. Likewise, aspirin kills around 2,000 people per year in America. Marijuana, however, has never been shown to cause any fatalities, meaning that scientists studying the drug’s effects on animals have never been able to give them enough of it to kill them. A DEA judge in the late ’80s stated that “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man.”

The Dangers of Using Marijuana as Medicine

Despite the apparent effectiveness of using marijuana as medicine, numerous issues have been raised with the idea. The first is that it is a drug with the potential for addiction. With marijuana, it can be more accurately be termed psychological dependence (there are no physical withdrawal symptoms), but regular usage could affect the individual’s personal, social, and professional life. It has also been commonly cited as the primary gateway drug, meaning that people who take it are more likely to move onto “harder” drugs in the future.

There is a long-standing and well-documented link between marijuana and schizophrenia, as well as some evidence of negative effects on concentration and learning. The relationship marijuana has with schizophrenia is complex, but the basic premise is that if you have a genetic predisposition towards the condition or you start smoking marijuana before the age of eighteen, you are at an increased risk of developing it. However, despite the boom in marijuana consumption in the 1960s, schizophrenia rates have held steady.

Medical concerns are the most damning arguments against medical marijuana. One of the main concerns is that regular marijuana smoking (one “joint” a day) damages the cells of the bronchi, which decreases the ability of immune cells to fight off bacteria and inhaled microorganisms. This makes the user more susceptible to things like pneumonia, which can be fatal in AIDS patients and others with weak immune systems. The more general immunosuppressant action of marijuana also makes it unsuitable for those with weakened immune systems.

What Does It All Mean?

The problem with determining whether to use marijuana as a medicine is evident. The potential risks could counteract its therapeutic benefit or lead to addiction, but neurochemistry, several scientific studies, and satisfied patients provide evidence to the contrary. The key point in this debate is that all medications, even over-the-counter painkillers, can be extremely dangerous, and allergic reactions are always a possibility. Consider the fact that morphine (essentially a weaker version of heroin) is widely used in professional medical contexts.

If doctors conduct examinations of each patient before prescribing cannabis (as they would for most medicines), they could identify those who may actually be at risk from using the drug. It should only be prescribed to those over the age of eighteen, never to those to have a family history of schizophrenia, and never to people with compromised immune systems. This level of precaution would enable glaucoma patients, chemotherapy patients, MS sufferers, and chronic pain sufferers (among others) to go through life with minimal pain or discomfort. The extremely low to potentially non-existent physical overdose danger of marijuana makes it extremely beneficial.

The “gateway” drug argument is applied rather erroneously. Legal drugs are somehow skipped over. Alcohol and tobacco are the real gateway drugs, because they are easy to obtain, widespread, and inexpensive. Although some marijuana smokers go on to use harder drugs, the majority of drug users drank alcohol or smoked tobacco before taking illicit substances. If there is such a thing as a gateway drug, it would be illogical to point the finger at marijuana. There is obviously the risk of chronic (long-term) patients developing an addiction to cannabis, but with opiate painkillers widely prescribed and even more addictive, it may be preferable in some ways to long-term use of legal medicines.

Overall, it seems that while there are some obvious risks associated with medical marijuana, some medicines currently available across the nation are much more dangerous. As with these medicines, the potential risks can be managed if sufficient research is conducted into the drug and prescribing doctors exercise caution. Other issues such as dispensaries supplying recreational users or doctors prescribing marijuana too readily should be managed through strict legislation, not taken out on the patients who can and do benefit from it.


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