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Medicinal Marijuana and Cancer Treatment

How Medicinal Marijuana Can Ease Cancer Treatment Side Effects

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Updated June 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

The use of medicinal marijuana is one of the most highly debated and controversial drug reform policy issues. It is strongly supported in the medical community by both patients and medical professionals as a relief to cancer treatment side effects, glaucoma, depression, and other health conditions. Others strongly oppose its medicinal use, claiming it is highly addictive and a gateway drug.

More states are adopting compassionate laws towards medicinal marijuana, and with the 2009 guidelines set forth by the U.S. Attorney General that discourage prosecution of medicinal marijuana users in certain states, many patients are choosing marijuana over pharmaceutical drugs to relieve symptoms and side effects.

*Please note that the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is still illegal in most states. Information contained in this article does not encourage or discourage the use of medicinal marijuana - it simply states the medical facts for patients wanting to learn more.

How Can Medicinal Marijuana Help Me?

Nausea, vomiting, pain, and insomnia are just a few of the side effects of cancer treatment. Most people can tolerate these reactions for a short amount of time, but when these side effects become chronic, it can cripple your quality of life and jeopardize your health. Medicinal marijuana may provide immediate, controlled relief to those suffering from nausea, appetite loss, depression, and some types of pain. The drug can be smoked, vaporized, infused in teas, or baked into foods.

Many anti-medicinal marijuana activists argue that there are pharmaceutical drugs that can combat these side effects of treatment just as well. However, many of these medications have their own side effects that may require additional medication to combat. Plus, it is difficult to keep down oral medications when you are experiencing nausea and/or vomiting. Medicinal marijuana is supported in the oncology community to ease the side effects of cancer treatment.

How Does Medicinal Marijuana Work?

Marijuana contains a compound called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that binds to specific receptors in the brain, which produces a relaxation effect in the body. Some people have more of these receptors in their brain and respond better to the effects of THC than others.

Marinol (dronabinol), a drug that contains synthetic THC, is available by prescription. For some people, the drug is effective against nausea and vomiting. However, it is very expensive and is not included in many prescription coverage formularies. Out-of-pocket costs can exceed $800 a month with average use. It is not effective in everyone and relief is not immediate. It can take 45 minutes to two hours to see the effects of Marinol.

Possible Side Effects of Medicinal Marijuana

Medicinal marijuana does have side effects of its own. Marijuana effects everyone differently, but some people may experience:
  • Anxiety
  • Drowsiness
  • Increased thirst or dry mouth
  • Heightened awareness of surrounding
  • Loss of short-term memory or slow reaction times
  • Insomnia
  • Feelings of euphoria

While a side effect like increased hunger may be great for someone who is experiencing loss of appetite, other effects like drowsiness may not be ideal for others.

Again, everyone reacts to marijuana use differently. It depends on how much is consumed and the quality of the drug. It is very important that you buy medicinal marijuana from an authorized source; otherwise, you do not know what other chemicals or even other drugs may have been added.

Guidelines for Using Medicinal Marijuana

Remember to always keep your doctor informed of any supplements or medication you are taking, including marijuana for medicinal purposes. It is essential your doctor is aware of all medications you are taking, including over-the-counter, prescription, or homeopathic therapies.

It is important to note that medicinal marijuana is not a form of treatment and is not curative. It is used to treat cancer symptoms like pain and to relieve select side effects of treatment.

How To Obtain Medicinal Marijuana

Fourteen states have legalized the use of medicinal marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Each state has rules and regulations in regards to obtaining medicinal marijuana. Please click on your state above to learn the specifics about registering for the program and its requirements.

Most states requires you to register in the state or county program with supporting documents, such as state identification, certification from a physician, and information/identification about caregivers who may be picking up the medicinal marijuana for your use. Some states have an application fee.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. Marijuana. 11/2008. Accessed October 2009.

U.S. Department of Drug Enforcement. Exposing Myths of Smoked Marijuana for Medicinal Purposes. Accessed October 19, 2009.

U.S. Department of Justice. Attorney General Announces Formal Medical Marijuana Guidelines. October 19, 2009. Accessed October 21, 2009.

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