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Health & Parenting

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Mary-Louise Parker on Momhood and Marijuana

The "Weeds" actress talks about blended families, acting, and legalizing pot.

Medical marijuana: does it work?

Of course, marijuana is not just a drug for substance abusers -- it has documented medical benefits as well. Still, "there will always have to be this balance between appropriate use in medicine and regulation," says Igor Grant, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the university’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. "We're not banning the use of opioid medications, antianxiety agents, or sleeping pills -- I'm not clear why this particular set of compounds is in a special category other than that there was this view held by some that marijuana has absolutely no benefit. I think most medical people will tell you that's not true."

Marijuana and pain control

In the first season of Weeds, Nancy Botwin's sales dry up when some of her customers manage to get their goods from a medical marijuana store -- the show is set in California, one of eight states in addition to the District of Columbia that have passed compassionate-use medical marijuana laws.

Leaving aside the jokes about potheads feigning cancer or chronic pain, a fairly sizable body of legitimate medical research demonstrates the medical benefits of cannabis. In a 1999 report, the Institute of Medicine pointed to "impressive" evidence of its medical benefits in treating glaucoma, asthma, fibromyalgia, and the nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy and called for further research. Marijuana also appears to be effective in relieving neuropathic pain, a very uncomfortable burning, tingling pain and hypersensitivity to touch often reported by people who have diabetes and patients with HIV.

Doctors aren't sure how marijuana works to relieve pain, although one
theory holds that it may activate certain receptors in the brain that affect pain perception. Marijuana might also offer relief for people with certain kinds of multiple sclerosis symptoms.

"People with multiple sclerosis can develop something called spasticity, which is painful contractions in their muscles. They get very stiff, and it’s difficult for them to walk and perform ordinary activities," says Grant.

"As with neuropathic pain, our current treatments for that are OK, but not wonderful. A study we completed at UCSD found that smoked marijuana did provide added benefits in relief of spasticity.

"We're really parallel to where we've been with other drugs that started as botanicals," Grant explains. "Digitalis and aspirin were both refined from plant products as well."

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