Marijuana has been legalized for medical use in 28 states with legislation pending in other states. While all of the states allow the use of this drug for medical purposes, each one has its own unique laws governing the use and restrictions of the substance. In some situations, it has even been recommended for use in substance abuse recovery, a stance that has been controversial for drug abuse treatment providers.
What the Term “Medical Marijuana” Means
Medical marijuana describes marijuana used for the purpose of treating pain in various medical conditions. Some of these conditions may be terminal while others are chronic. They do not have to be life-threatening, but can be invasive such as severe headaches or nerve pain. The goal is to provide relief from symptoms associated with these conditions rather than as treatment of the condition itself in most cases.
When a person is allowed the use of marijuana for medical purposes in a state where it’s legal, the doctor will give them a card approving its use. This adds a person’s name to a list where they can buy the product from a dispensary. Dispensaries are authorized sellers of marijuana who must meet specific guidelines.
Doctors cannot prescribe marijuana due to federal laws prohibiting them from doing so. Their prescriptions instead are given as recommendations or referrals. Each state where marijuana is allowed for medical use has limitations on how much a person can have at one time. It also limits the use as to which purposes it may be used. For instance, in California, it is approved for various conditions, including general chronic or persistent medical symptoms. The patient may have up to six mature plants or eight ounces of dried product. In New Hampshire, the patient is only allowed two ounces.
Some examples of conditions marijuana may be used to treat include the following:
- Seizure disorders
- Nausea caused by chemotherapy
- Nerve pain
- Multiple sclerosis
- Crohn’s disease
Most often, marijuana is used to treat pain, but it may also be used for nausea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and muscle spasms. The human body makes chemicals that act like the effects of marijuana, and it is believed that the substance enhances the natural chemicals to help them work better.
Medical marijuana may be smoked, eaten, taken in liquid form or vaporized. When eaten, it is taken in as candy or cookies. When used as a vapor, marijuana is heated until its active ingredients are released. However, no smoke forms from this method.
Just like with any other medication, marijuana does contain side effects. They usually don’t last long and aren’t life-threatening. They include the following:
- Short-term memory loss
- Drowsiness or feelings of fatigue
The person may also feel severe anxiety or even psychosis in extreme situations. Unlike medications which have been approved by the Federal Drug Administration, marijuana is not monitored for medical use.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug, which means it carries a significant risk for dependency. While the substance isn’t as addictive as heroin or other opiates, it does carry a risk for addiction. This condition is often referred to as marijuana use disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30 percent of people who use marijuana may have some level of this disorder, and it is most often seen in those who begin using while they are under the age of 18.
Dependence is defined as someone who experiences symptoms of withdrawal when they stop using. These symptoms may include loss of appetite, cravings, irritability, insomnia, restlessness and other discomfort. They can last up to two weeks.
Just like with any other addictive substance, the body adjusts to the presence of marijuana in the system and reduces production of its own natural hormones. Not everyone agrees on the addictiveness of marijuana, but it is compared to alcohol because it results in an altered state for the person when being used. A person’s reaction time is slower, which is why use when driving can result in a DUI just like with alcohol.
Marijuana’s Use in Recovery
There are two separate issues for marijuana use with those in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction. While the two issues are technically separate, they are also intertwined. The first is whether a person who is in recovery or has completed a drug rehabilitation program can safely use marijuana for medical purposes. The second issue is whether marijuana use can safely replace abuse of other addictive substances, such as alcohol or opiates.
Advocates for marijuana use say that it is less addictive than other drugs, making it a safer choice. They cite studies showing that people turn to marijuana in place of alcohol or heroin. However, the main concern with using marijuana either as a replacement drug or for medical purposes with someone who has an addiction problem is that it will derail their recovery.
Concerns Over Marijuana Use for Addicts
Concerns over marijuana use by those with an addiction problem are valid. A person who is recovering from alcohol abuse or drug addiction will never be cured of their problem. They are always a recovering addict for the rest of their lives, even if they never suffer a relapse. The tendency towards addiction is so great that most recovering addicts can never safely have a drink without returning to their addictive lifestyle.
Marijuana may be compared to alcohol for alcoholics who must abstain forever or to prescription drugs with a high risk of addiction like Vicodin or OxyContin. While these drugs may be given to treat pain from certain conditions, they are not recommended for anyone who has a history of addiction. The concern for these patients is that the properties of the medication will cause the person to begin having cravings again. The drugs or alcohol act as triggers for addicts, causing them to want to use again.
This same concern is valid for marijuana, whether it is used recreationally or for medical purposes. Just like a doctor would most likely not recommend a highly addictive prescription medication to former drug addicts, marijuana is not recommended for use by those with an addiction history.
While some people believe that marijuana allows a person to manage their addiction in a safe way, many experts say it increases the likelihood of future addiction problems. Because some people have a greater tendency towards addiction, using a substance that alters your system like marijuana will increase your desire for it. Once the body has become adjusted to the presence of the substance, it demands more or in some cases, demands a stronger substance to feel the same effects. Just like people who abuse prescription medications are at a higher risk for heroin addiction, people who use marijuana may be at an increased risk for other more potent drugs.
Anyone who is in recovery or seeking help with an addiction should discuss the medical use of marijuana with their treatment provider. They should be upfront about any addiction issues with their medical doctor as well. It’s important not to take any substance that may derail the progress that has been made with addiction or to increase the risk of relapse for the person.
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