In 1992, then-governor of Massachusetts William F. Weld signed a bill into law legalizing the use of marijuana for glaucoma, cancer therapy, and certain asthmatic disorders under a limited Department of Public Health (DPH) research program. In 1996, the legislature gave DPH the power to approve any Massachusetts patient to “possess and use pot” legally for relief of symptoms.1 In my position as Health Policy Coordinator with DPH, those two acts were my introduction to the controversy of medical marijuana.
Since then, the popularity of—or rather, the shift in public sentiment regarding—marijuana (cannabis/cannabinoid) use has changed. There has been significant interest in the use of marijuana as an adjunct to treating chronic and/or debilitating medical conditions. There is also increasing interest in the potential therapeutic uses of marijuana and other cannabinoid compounds.
In recent years, we’ve seen significant momentum on this front. Point in fact, in fiscal year 2017, the National Institutes of Health supported projects on cannabinoid research totaling almost $140 million.2 More than 30 US jurisdictions have passed legislation to legalize marijuana for medical use (while a few have legalized its use, period).3 All of which has prompted quite the debate not only among the public but also among health care providers.
A review of the history of cannabis use is very interesting—specifically, that the use of cannabis as a therapeutic modality predates recorded history. Cannabis was very popular in ancient China, India, and Greece as a medicine to alleviate pain or cure a variety of ailments.4,5 In the early 1900s, cannabis was available OTC and commonly used for a variety of illnesses in the US. The first law regarding marijuana was enacted in 1619 at Jamestown Colony, Virginia; it “ordered” all farmers to grow Indian hempseed.6
But by 1906, cannabis was labeled as a poison in many states, and by the 1920s absolute prohibitions began. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 outlawed cannabis for any use. Despite that ban, marijuana is the most common illegal drug used in the US today.7
Marijuana, not a completely benign substance, occupies a unique position in our society. On the one hand, it is a recreational compound, used to attain pleasant euphoria and a sense of relaxation. On the other, it has been used as a therapeutic compound, relieving nausea and anorexia from chemotherapy. In the former, it is viewed by many as a dangerous drug that can lead to madness (as depicted in the film Reefer Madness).8 In the latter, its use as an effective analgesic and appetite stimulant has been supported by people who have realized a therapeutic benefit.
The potential medicinal benefits of marijuana and its components have been the subject of research and ongoing heated debates. Decades of anecdotal evidence regarding the effectiveness of marijuana on the aforementioned symptoms have been documented. There are also numerous studies on marijuana as a therapeutic agent for multiple conditions, using the plant itself or extracts derived from it.9-11
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