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7 myths about medical marijuana

Nearly half the states in the US now allow medical marijuana. But even as the drug's legal medicinal use spreads throughout the country, there's a lot of confusion over what, exactly, medical marijuana is all about.

Some people question whether marijuana is really medicine in the first place. Opponents often say it's just a backdoor to the legalization of recreational pot. And some supporters make all sorts of wild claims about what the drug can treat.

Some of the issues surrounding medical marijuana are entirely subjective or still being studied, but there are a few cases in which people simply get the facts wrong. Here are seven myths about medical marijuana.

Myth #1: Marijuana can treat Ebola

In a Fox Business interview, Gary Johnson, CEO of Cannabis Sativa and former Libertarian presidential candidate, suggested that marijuana could be used to cure Ebola. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support that claim.

But Johnson's remarks provide a glimpse at what the commercialization of marijuana could look like. It's common for big companies to use crises to justify policies that favor them, particularly deregulation. Johnson, in his comments, was doing exactly the same thing — regardless of the actual scientific evidence.

Myth #2: Marijuana can't be medicine

medical marijuana

Marijuana flows out of a medicine bottle. (Shutterstock)

The federal government's classification for marijuana — schedule 1, the strictest category in the scheduling system — indicates that marijuana has no medical value.

The available research and various reports disagree. Several studies and anecdotal evidence suggest marijuana can be used for various medical problems, including pain, nausea and loss of appetite, Parkinson's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, PTSD, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. Some of these treatments have been proven to work on children, particularly those with forms of epilepsy that can induce hundreds of seizures a day.

For some people, marijuana seems to be the only thing that works. One cancer patient told me in 2013 that taking marijuana eased her epilepsy, nausea, and loss of appetite. She tried conventional medication first, but none of her prescriptions were effective in addressing all of her medical problems. "Without medical marijuana, I wouldn't be alive today," she said. "It really has changed my life for the better."

The federal government doesn't give credence to the available research and anecdotes because it has a much higher threshold for medical evidence. To validate medical value through the scheduling system, the entire marijuana plant must have large-scale clinical trials to back it up — similar to what the Food and Drug Administration would expect from any other drug entering the market. But this research has also been tough to conduct because the schedule 1 classification makes it very difficult to get approval for marijuana studies.

Myth #3: Medical marijuana is de facto legalization

Opponents often characterize medical marijuana legalization as a backdoor to the full legalization of recreational pot. The argument is that most people don't actually need marijuana for medical purposes; they're just obtaining medical marijuana cards to use the drug recreationally. Much of this sentiment is rooted in reports of the medical marijuana program in California, which has struggled for years to get its largely unregulated medical marijuana industry under control.

But it doesn't have to be this way — and in some places, it's not. The medical marijuana program in New Jersey is so strict that fewer than 3,000 patients have signed up, far fewer than the tens of thousands expected. And some parents are leaving the state to get their sick children access to pot in places with laxer laws. The medical marijuana program in Washington, DC, is also fairly strict, and schemes in New York and Minnesota are expected to be tightly regulated as well.

Medical marijuana programs can also vary in many ways from state to state. Some, like California, allow medical marijuana dispensaries and home cultivation; others, such as Alaska, only allow home cultivation; and a few, including Delaware, allow dispensaries but not home cultivation.

Myth #4: Marijuana can always be broken down into components for medicine


An Israeli worker trims marijuana meant for medical uses. (Uriel Sinal / Getty Images News)

Maybe marijuana can be medicine, opponents say, but only if it's broken down into different components. "Many plants, including marijuana, have medicinal properties," writes Kevin Sabet of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. "But that doesn't mean that in order to derive those medicinal benefits, we should smoke or ingest its raw, crude form. After all, we don't smoke opium to get the benefits of morphine."

The problem is there are hundreds of cannabinoids in marijuana — and it's not clear how they all interact with each other. CBD, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana, may work really well for some children suffering from seizures, but it doesn't appear to work by itself for everyone.

Joanna Buffum at New Jersey Monthly reported:

It is known that patients react to a variety of cannabinoids in the plant, not just THC and CBD. It is not known why certain cannabinoids, or a combination of several, work for some patients and not for others. For Jax Stormes, CBD by itself doesn’t work. He needs a mixture of THC, CBD and another cannabinoid, THCa.

"Everyone sees CBD as some type of miracle treatment," says Dr. Lorraine Lazar, a pediatric neurologist at Morristown Medical Center's Goryeb Children's Hospital. She doesn’t agree. "I think CBD will be just like other therapies. It's not going to be the end-all for everyone."

Researchers are still studying all the components of marijuana to determine the full effects of each major cannabinoid. It may be possible someday to break down marijuana into its various components for more precise forms of medicine, but the science just isn't there yet. In the meantime, many patients argue it's better for them to get some relief through the whole marijuana plant, even if it causes an unnecessary high.

Myth #5: Marijuana isn't medicine because it's smoked

A person smokes a marijuana joint. Shutterstock

A person smokes a marijuana joint. (Shutterstock)

Opponents of medical marijuana legalization, including SAM and the Drug Enforcement Administration, often argue that pot isn't medicine because it's smoked. Even a landmark study by the Institute of Medicine that supported medical marijuana suggested that smoking the drug is risky.

But a lot of people who smoke medicinal marijuana get medical benefits from it. Marijuana also doesn't have to be smoked; it can be consumed through vaporization, pills, edibles, dabs, and patches. Some medical marijuana states, like New York and Minnesota, even prohibit patients from smoking pot.

Myth #6: Medical marijuana is politically controversial

medical marijuana polls

With the way politicians approach medical marijuana, one would think that it's still a very touchy subject. Even Hillary Clinton, widely expected to be the Democratic presidential contender in 2016, has said she only supports medical marijuana "for people who are in extreme medical conditions" and "under appropriate circumstances," and she wants more research before she makes up her mind on the issue.

But medical marijuana actually has massive bipartisan support among voters across the country. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found 73 percent of American voters support medical marijuana, including 61 percent of Republicans. Even when the medical marijuana amendment lost in Florida on November 4, it got nearly 58 percent of the vote — more votes than re-elected Gov. Rick Scott, but not enough to meet Florida's 60 percent requirement for constitutional amendments.

Myth #7: The federal government patents medical marijuana

drug approvals

Almost every article I write about medical marijuana or the drug scheduling system is followed by tweets and emails asking about the federal government's patent on the medical use of marijuana. The messages, mostly from legalization supporters, argue that if the federal government patents medical marijuana, then surely the feds know the drug has medical value and should be rescheduled.

But the federal government doesn't patent medical marijuana. It patents the medical use of some compounds in marijuana, including CBD. The patent specifically avoids psychoactive cannabinoids, like THC, and doesn't include the whole marijuana plant.

The patent also doesn't prove marijuana has medical value, although it does acknowledge the drug's medical potential. For the purposes of rescheduling, though, the federal government needs large-scale clinical trials similar to what the FDA requires for other drugs, not a simple nod at potential.

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