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Medical Marijuana: Legitimate Therapeutic Choice?

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Rather than offering Marilyn marijuana that is smoked, DuPont would prefer she be offered drugs that have been shown to be highly effective for treating nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, such as dexamethasone and aprepitant. Should these not work, he said, he would opt for one of two prescription "cannabinoid" pills that are available: dronabinol (Marinol) or nabilone (Cesamet), which are both approved by the FDA for the same purpose.

DuPont argued that with the oral cannabinoids, the precise dosages have been established and the medications take effect more gradually than does smoked marijuana, and thus would be less likely to cause anxiety or panic.

Dr. J. Michael Bostwick wrote the "pro" argument for offering Marilyn marijuana. Bostwick, a professor in the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, in Rochester, Minn., said he told the editors at the New England Journal of Medicine that he could have made the case for either side. He had a family member with substance-abuse issues involving marijuana. "I kept hearing marijuana is harmless and doesn't cause any problems, and yet I was seeing addiction," he said.

Still, Bostwick said he would give marijuana to Marilyn.

"If it would help, why not? I say that, knowing that much of what we do in medicine is empirical, but knowing there are arguments for exploring the possibilities the whole endocannabinoid system might offer," he said. Bostwick explained that there are receptors for cannabinoids in the brain, the gastrointestinal system and immune tissues -- which suggests the body may be designed to accommodate or benefit from marijuana.

"The downside of trying medical marijuana is small. If she did not have a recent experience with [marijuana], she might not even like it," he said.

Bostwick believes the federal government should make marijuana, which is now illegal in the United States, a "schedule II" drug, thereby allowing researchers to study its safety and effectiveness. Schedule II drugs are considered to have a high abuse risk but also have safe and accepted medical uses. Schedule II drugs include morphine, cocaine, oxycodone (Percodan), methylphenidate (Ritalin) and dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine).

Bostwick argues that Marilyn's situation is a clear case for the need to apply clinical judgment: "In the context of an ongoing relationship, as one more treatment in a wide pharmacopeia, it's up to the doctor," he said.

More information

To learn more about marijuana, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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