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Marijuana: A Fine Line Between Helpful and Harmful

by Julian Martin Dollente, RN

There is a current debate on the legalization of marijuana. Some people find it beneficial in treating certain diseases, while others consider it a dangerous substance to avoid under any circumstances. Let’s try to clarify the risks and benefits of marijuana so that you can decide for yourself.

What is Marijuana?

Marijuana – also known as weed, pot, dope, cannabis, MJ, etc., is a mixture of dried flowers, leaves, seeds, and the stem of the cannabis plant.

This plant contains several biologically active components called cannabinoids. The two best-studied components are the psychoactive (mind-altering) chemical known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol  (THC) and the cannabidiol (CBD), which is non-psychoactive and has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. THC is the active ingredient for the intoxicating effects that people seek and make marijuana addictive.

Common ways to use it include :

  • eating it raw
  • smoking (like cigarettes) or vaping (new trend nowadays) 
  • consuming it in the form of edibles, like cake, brownies, candies, and more
  • brewing it as a tea
  • applying it as a topical treatment
  • taking it as a supplement
From the original plant, marijuana edibles, capsules, and oils are developed.
Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

5 Medical Benefits of Marijuana

Many believe, especially users, that marijuana has several health benefits and is safe to use, considering that it is organic. Over the years, studies have shown results to suggest that marijuana may help treat some conditions. It is important to remember that further research is needed to clarify cannabis’ future applications as a pharmaceutical.

Scientific research commonly discusses the following medical benefits of marijuana:

Marijuana and Pain Management 

In January 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a review assessing more than 100 scientific studies on the medical benefits and adverse effects of marijuana. 

One area of the report mentioned the use of medical marijuana as a treatment for chronic pain. The reason is that cannabinoids in marijuana may reduce pain by altering pain perception pathways in the brain.

Now, if you understand how pain works, it all happens in the brain. It is where the sensation of pain is registered, the information is processed, and the pain is perceived. Taking marijuana somehow disrupts that process, and your brain will not be able to tell you you’re in pain. Pain relief may be helpful to those patients suffering from diseases that have lingering pain.

Neurological and mental disorders

The Clinical Psychology Review has published a review assessing a collection of published scientific literature regarding the use of marijuana to treat the symptoms of mental disorders.

Some evidence suggests the use of marijuana in relieving depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).

Due to the effects of marijuana on the brain, doctors sometimes prescribed it for the following neurological and mental health conditions:

  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple Sclerosis 
  • Parkinson’s disease 
  • Tourette syndrome 
  • Huntington disease 
  • Anxiety 

Nevertheless, marijuana has yet to gain an indication in treating mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and psychosis. 

Sleep management 

People suffering from chronic pain and illnesses often experience sleep deficiencies due to the discomfort brought about by their condition. Marijuana is known to be effective for pain management, and when pain is reduced, an improvement of sleep may occur. The use of marijuana has relaxing effects that may help improve sleep disorders, such as insomnia. However, THC may have a negative long-term impact on sleep. Further research is needed to clarify risks and benefits of cannabis to sleep.

A night of regular, restful sleep is part of a healthy lifestyle, and the importance of a good night’s sleep cannot be overstated. 

Cancer management

Evidence suggests that smoked marijuana is effective against nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy. Some studies have shown that people in clinical trials tended to need less pain medication when taking marijuana extracts. 

Recent scientific reports have found that cannabinoids like THC and CBD can slow the growth and/or cause the death of certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes. Studies from animal subjects also suggest that certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce the spread of some forms of cancer.

However, early clinical trials that tested this hypothesis in humans revealed that even though the it may be a relatively safe treatment, it is not effective at curing or controlling cancer.

But then again, cancer being one of those incurable diseases that could alter one’s life for the worst and a silent killer that slowly destroys your body from the inside, any remedy is welcome. Considering that marijuana may be an effective treatment for cancer symptoms is already a big win. Not to mention that it is already FDA-approved for appetite stimulation in cancer cachexia (weight loss) and chemo-related nausea.

Diabetes and Other Conditions

Cannabinoids in marijuana may help in regulating and preventing diabetes. Research by the advocacy group American Alliance for Medical Cannabis (AAMC) supported that marijuana may help stabilize blood sugars, suppress arterial inflammation, reduce muscle cramps, lower blood pressure, and improve circulation.

THC and CBD are responsible for this as they have been shown to improve metabolism, decrease blood glucose levels and increase insulin production in people with type 2 diabetes.

Cannabis may show benefit in relieving pain for those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease. However, the inflammation which is responsible for the pain did not improve in studies. The research is limited to three small placebo-controlled studies (as of 2020), enrolling a total of 93 subjects. Therefore, it’s difficult to make general conclusions of cannabis without randomized trials, though it does not stop 15% of people with Crohn’s disease from trying it.

Marijuana Health Risks

We all know that cannabis is not all good. Otherwise, it would have already been available in your local drug stores by now. The THC in marijuana can be very dangerous. It has several health risks and side effects, one of which is altering brain function. Though, compared to other illicit drugs, it is less addictive. Still, every potential risk needs to be considered in equal measure. Below are some of the known health risks.

man in black hoodie sitting on brown couch
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Mental Health Problems

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Respiratory problems

Cannabis smoke can irritate the lungs. In a 2007 study, the authors concluded, after a review of CT scans and pulmonary function studies, that one joint was equivalent to 2.5 to 5 cigarettes. People who smoke marijuana regularly can have similar breathing problems as those who smoke tobacco. These problems include:

  • Chronic cough and phlegm
  • More frequent lung illness
  • Higher risk of lung infection

study published in 2014 suggests the plausibility of marijuana users (smokers) and the risk of developing lung cancer, though it has been challenging to link the two conclusively. The authors of that study concluded that “there is unequivocal evidence that habitual or regular marijuana smoking is not harmless. A caution against heavy marijuana users is prudent.”

Smoking marijuana can cause harm to the lungs and may be more damaging than cigarettes
Photo by Jill Burrow on Pexels.com

Heart Problems

Smoking cannabis can also raise the heart rate, leading to an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. However, more research is required to clearly understand the impact of marijuana use on the circulatory system.

Social problems

Using marijuana can affect the performance of people’s day-to-day lives. Research has shown that marijuana users are more likely to have problems with society such as:

  • Relationship problems
  • Worse educational outcomes
  • Lower career achievement
  • Reduce life satisfaction

It is important to know that the degree of risks and side effects of marijuana use varies between people. One person’s experience may be different from another’s. That being said, all these risks present a heavy burden in justifying the legalization of marijuana. 

Marijuana Legal Issues

Within the United States, as of the writing of this article, there are currently 18 states and D.C. that have fully legalized, decriminalized, and made marijuana available for medicinal use. Other states have accepted it or derivatives (e.g., CBD) for medicinal use; five states have made it fully illegal.

Marijuana remains illegal in the Philippines. Under the Republic Act (RA) 9165 or the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002, cannabis or marijuana is listed as dangerous. Therefore, any sale, possession, use, importation, manufacturing, cultivation, among others, are prohibited and punishable by fine or imprisonment. 

Since 2014, Philippine lawmakers are pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana to be passed in Congress, and their attempts have been futile so far. President Rodrigo Duterte remains steadfast in his anti-drug policy – popularly called the “war on drugs” – which is not without controversy and criticisms.    

However, according to Senate President Vicente Sotto III, medical marijuana is already allowed under “compassionate use” of RA 9165. That being said, there isn’t any section of RA 9165 that explicitly mentions the term “medical marijuana.”  

According to Sotto, the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) allows access to drugs and medicines not registered in the Philippines via issuance of a “compassionate special permit.”

The Dangerous Drug Board (DBB) has approved “in principle” a resolution authorizing the use of cannabidiol (CBD) for the treatment of specific forms of epilepsy like Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet Syndrome.

The Bottom Line

What does this mean if you plan to use marijuana for medical purposes?

In the US, many states have legalized and decriminalized marijuana in the last several years. We can expect to hear much more of the risks and benefits in further studies.

If you’re in the Philippines, the chances of using marijuana are very low because of three reasons:

  • Marijuana is illegal, which means it will be hard to come by. 
  • You need a doctor’s recommendation. And even if you’re able to secure one, you will need the approval of the FDA for a “compassionate special permit,” which I’m sure will take a lot of time.
  • If you’re granted a special permit by some luck, since you cannot buy it locally, it will really cost you a lot of money. 

Suppose you’re interested in using marijuana for recreational purposes. In that case, you may as well forget about it unless you’re willing to be one of the “casualties” of President Duterte’s war on drugs. 

So, will it be worth it? There are no guarantees in life, and certainly not a drug that still requires more research to clarify the risks and benefits.

Julian Martin Dollente, RN

About the Author

Julian Martin Dollente was born in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. He is a Registered Nurse and is currently in line with the government in giving Social Services to the people in his country. He works hard so that he could  help his family have a better future. As a father and a husband, he aims to provide his family a life that is both blissful and comfortable. In his free time, he loves to travel and would take every opportunity to visit places and see the world.

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