Making sense of medical marijuana: Part 1

Part 1: Harmless therapeutic treatment? The case for medical marijuana

 Canada is poised to enter uncharted territory this spring, when the Liberal government introduces legislation to legalize marijuana. With the exception of Uruguay, no other major Western nation has fully legalized the drug.

The Canadian government’s push to legalize cannabis has galvanized the country. Anti-marijuana and pro-marijuana lobby groups have been pleading their cases, while citizens, politicians and many in the medical community are divided over the issue.

Although legalization of marijuana in Canada centres around its recreational use, the medical use of cannabis has been permitted by the government for several years, and its use as a therapeutic treatment has also been contentious. Marijuana is regarded by some health care practitioners as a safe alternative to pharmaceuticals, and thousands of Canadians can legally use the drug for medical purposes.

It’s unclear whether new marijuana laws will mean doctors will no longer need to prescribe the drug for patients who use it for medical reasons. Meanwhile, 43 per cent of physicians believe there should be a single regulatory system (meaning no distinction between medicinal and recreational use) while 39 per cent support a dual regime.1 Either way, access to marijuana will be far less cumbersome for those who use it for medical purposes once the government paves the way for the rest of the country to legally buy the drug.

Given the propensity to self-diagnose in this day and age of Dr. Google, will more Canadians turn to marijuana to help heal whatever ails them, especially if they won’t require the formal blessing of a doctor? It’s hard to dismiss this possibility. Meanwhile, evidence substantiating the therapeutic use of marijuana is another hotly debated topic, as is whether the potential benefits of medical marijuana outweigh its purported harmful effects. In our next posts, let’s take a look at both sides of the debate.

Those in favour of medical marijuana claim it is a safe and effective alternative to traditional drugs, and while clinical evidence supporting such claims may be scant, there is no shortage of stories from people who say medical marijuana saved them when traditional therapies failed.

  • There is some evidence supporting the use of medical marijuana to help relieve chronic pain. One study found that medical marijuana helped patients suffering from chronic pain arising from conditions such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis who had not responded to conventional pain therapies (note that these patients had previously used the drug, so it’s unclear if these findings can be extrapolated to first-time users).2 In fact, the Canadian Pain Society has changed its treatment recommendations for neuropathic pain to include cannabinoids. Still, this is recommended in cases where other pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments have not been successful or well tolerated.
  • Medical marijuana has the potential to reduce demand for opioids, which may in turn decrease the number of accidental painkiller overdoses. In one U.S. study, researchers found that in states where it is legal to use medical marijuana to manage chronic pain, deaths from prescription drug overdoses are 25 per cent lower than in states where medical marijuana is illegal.3
  • As an appetite stimulant, marijuana can benefit patients experiencing loss of appetite due to illness or the side effects of a medication. Cannabis is also purported to help reduce feelings of nausea – marijuana compounds are found within some anti-nausea drugs prescribed to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Continued next week: Dangerous, addictive drug? The case against medical marijuana

[1] Canadian doctors divided over details of legal marijuana, The Globe and Mail, August 2016
[2] Medical marijuana seems to safely help chronic pain patients: study, The Canadian Press, September 2015
[3]State Medical Marijuana Laws Linked to Lower Prescription Overdose Deaths, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, August 2014