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Would Medical Marijuana be Helpful for Me?

Dr. Malik Burnett and Amanda Reiman, PhD, MSW

Dear Doctors,

Over the past few months I have been reading reports about how so many people have been getting relief from medical marijuana, from little children with epilepsy to patients with cancer, there seem to be a significant number of people getting help that wasn’t otherwise possible, but how can I tell if medical marijuana will be helpful for me?

Relief Seeker

Dear Seeker,

Thanks for your question. You are not alone in having this question. Over the past few weeks we have been inundated with hundreds of questions from people all across the country looking to see if they can get relief from medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana is by no means a panacea, but because of how the body’s endocannabinoid system is designed, there are a significant number of ailments for which medical cannabis can prove useful.

In order to get a better handle on the breadth of diseases for which the cannabis plant has potential therapeutic uses, it is best to group diseases into four major categories: neurological, inflammatory, digestive, and psychological.

*Note some of these diseases have a pathophysiology that make them fit in multiple groups but for simplicity we will discuss them in one section here.


The most widely recognized category of diseases for which medical cannabis has been shown to be therapeutically beneficial are the neurological disorders. In fact, it is so widely recognized that the U.S. government owns the only patent on the cannabis plant and it is for the treatment of neurological disorders. Research indicates that medical cannabis has proven to be beneficial in the treatment of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, Glaucoma, and of course numerous epileptic disorders.

The overarching mechanism of action for medical cannabis in these diseases is based on the role that cannabinoids play in the brain as regulators of neurotransmitters, or the molecules which facilitate communication in the brain. Additionally, GW Pharmaceuticals has developed two medicines based on cannabis plant extracts, Sativex and Epidiolex, which have shown benefits for both MS and epileptic patients.


In addition to neurological benefits, medical cannabis has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of disease processes which are characterized by disorders of the immune system.  Some of these diseases include, rheumatoid arthritis and HIV/AIDS. For simplicity we will also include cancer in this category given that the mechanism of action for cannabinoids within cancer treatment is similar to those of other inflammatory processes, by again having cannabinoids modulate intercellular communication processes.


It is a well-established fact that medical marijuana has been useful in alleviating symptoms of nausea which are associated with a range of illnesses as well as helping to stimulate appetite, a phenomenon which can prove beneficial to both the infirmed and healthy individual. Beyond being helpful in symptom management, medical cannabis has also been shown to help gastrointestinal disorders, such as Chron’s Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The mechanism of action for this is currently not well understood but patients who use medical cannabis for these conditions report benefits such as greater ability to sleep, reduced abdominal cramping, and improved ability to digest foods.


The use of medical cannabis in the treatment of psychological conditions remains highly controversial and narrow in scope. As we have discussed in a previous blog post, many people still erroneously hold the belief that medical cannabis use causes schizophrenia. In spite of this falsehood, medical cannabis has been shown to be beneficial in the treatment of bipolar disorder, PTSD, and Tourette’s syndrome. Ultimately, significantly more research is needed to understand the role that medical cannabis can play in psychotherapy, but preliminary results are promising.

Overall, it is vital that you consult your physician and have an open and honest dialogue regarding the use of cannabis in your medical care. Medical cannabis is not a first line therapy for any disease, and often times is used in conjunction with traditional medical therapies, given its ability to mitigate the side effects of many medications. What is clear is that we need more research and physician involvement in the arena of medical cannabis. One great resource for more information on the research behind medical cannabis can be found here. Additionally, our friends at Americans for Safe Access are promoting the dialogue by discussing these issues in our nation’s capital next month. Just recently, the United States Senate introduced legislation that will protect medical-cannabis states and drastically expand the ability of scientists to conduct research on this venerable plant. With legislation like this, we can open up the opportunities for research and capitalize on the full therapeutic applications of the cannabis plant.


The Doctors

Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

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