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Exploring the unknowns of medicinal marijuana

The Prairie Doc 20 years
On Call with the Prairie Doc®

This interview is from SDPB's daily public-affairs show, In the Moment, hosted by Lori Walsh.

What About Medical Cannabis?

By Andrew Ellsworth, M.D.

Since ancient times, marijuana has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes in many cultures. In the United States, it became illegal during prohibition, like alcohol. Later, under the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970’s, the federal government classified marijuana a Schedule 1 drug. This classification includes heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, all deemed to have no safe, effective medical use and a high potential for abuse.

This Schedule 1 status imposes bureaucratic and legal barriers, making it difficult to conduct scientific research on the medical benefits from marijuana. Studies that have been conducted are small and limited. Thus, physicians are less confident recommending marijuana for patients. Not to mention, use or possession remains illegal federally and in many states.

The word cannabis refers to all products derived from the plant cannabis sativa. There are hundreds of compounds in this plant, called cannabinoids. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of them, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is another. The word marijuana often refers to products from the plant that contain large amounts of THC, which is psychoactive and can alter someone’s mental state.

Cannabinoids can trigger receptors in the brain to release neurotransmitters to affect mood, sleep, pain, and memory. Drugs with cannabinoids may be helpful in treating nausea and vomiting from cancer treatments, loss of appetite and weight loss from AIDS, chronic pain syndrome, multiple sclerosis symptoms, glaucoma and children suffering from seizures. There may be other medical benefits we are not yet aware of. We need more research to determine safe treatments and establish confidence.

Marijuana use can cause harm. It can do more than dull the brain and give someone the munchies. It can increase the risk of motor vehicle crashes. In some individuals it can increase the risk of developing schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. Frequent use by adults and use in adolescence can decrease attention and memory, or cause cannabis use disorder, which has symptoms of craving, withdrawal, lack of control, and negative effects on personal and professional responsibilities. Sometimes people develop recurrent severe vomiting. Vaping products with THC have resulted in severe lung injury.

Marijuana has been used as a medicine for a very long time in various cultures. Yes, it can be addictive, and it can cause problems. Although, when you consider the harms from alcohol, tobacco, narcotic pain killers, and other medications, perhaps cannabis deserves a chance to be further studied and used when medically appropriate.

Andrew Ellsworth, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc® team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. Follow The Prairie Doc® at www.prairiedoc.org and on Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc® a medical Q&A show celebrating its twentieth season of truthful, tested, and timely medical information, broadcast on SDPB and streaming live on Facebook most Thursdays at 7 p.m. central.