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Medical Marijuana: What the Research Shows

A Marijuana Discovery continued...

Also, most of the studies had fewer than 200 patients. So doubt continues about marijuana’s value and who it really can help, says J. Michael Bostwick, MD. He's a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic and author of a review of medical marijuana research.

Based on medical science, it seems possible that marijuana-based treatments could be developed for some conditions; but federal restrictions make it hard for the research to advance, Bostwick says.

That’s because scientists in the U.S. have to get approval from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the FDA to do research on medical marijuana.

A series of studies allowed by the DEA came to a conclusion similar to Bostwick's. The 13 studies were done by The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California in San Diego between 2000 and 2010.

The conclusion: “Cannabinoids may be useful medicine for certain indications” and deserve further research, wrote Igor Grant, professor and executive vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the university. The studies also showed that inhaling marijuana through a vaporizer or a spray was a better way to deliver it than by smoking.

Among the unanswered questions about medical marijuana is the risk to users. About 10% of people who smoke marijuana become addicted. It’s not known what that means if it is being used for medical reasons, Bostwick says. He adds that some patients find the effects of marijuana “intolerable.”

Marijuana-Based Drugs

Despite the obstacles, three FDA-approved drugs are made from marijuana. They include:

  • Marinol and Cesamet: Both drugs are used to treat nausea and lack of appetite related to chemotherapy and in AIDS patients. They are man-made versions of THC, the primary chemical in marijuana that gives users a “high.” Both were approved in the 1980s.
  • Epidiolex: This drug to treat children’s epilepsy received FDA approval in 2013. Its use is highly restricted.

Another drug, Sativex, is in clinical trials in the U.S. for pain with breast cancer. It is a combination of chemicals from the marijuana herb and is sprayed into the mouth. Sativex is approved in more than 20 countries to treat muscle spasms from MS and cancer pain.

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