Is Marijuana Good for Health? How Drug Laws Restrict Research of Cannabis Treatments

Candies made of marijuana are seen at Perennial Holistic Wellness Center medical marijuana dispensary, which opened in 2006, on July 25, 2012, in Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania's health department unveiled a landmark registry for its residents who use medical marijuana. The new website will serve as a one-stop hub connecting patients and caregivers to growers, dispensaries, labs and physicians. More than 100 doctors are already linked to the program, with another 200 currently in training. By May of 2018, applicants should be able to pick up their prescriptions anywhere in the state.

The developments are in keeping with the wave sweeping over the eastern seaboard as marijuana use becomes more mainstream. With the continued spread of legalization and the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, researchers are now looking at what other health benefits the plant may have.

But finding that out is difficult. Marijuana is still a Schedule 1 substance and thus illegal at the federal level. But a growing number of states have marijuana initiatives on their ballots for the coming year. Because it is a Schedule 1 substance, it's difficult to get clinical studies approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The catch here is that in the absence of enough federally funded research, marijuana proponents lack the grounds for getting the Schedule 1 classification overturned.

White House opioid commission rejects medical marijuana as pain relief option, citing a "lack of sophisticated data"

— The Cannabist (@cannabist) November 2, 2017

Whether marijuana deserves that classification is a matter of debate. Schedule 1 substances are those that the federal government believes have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit. These parameters are helpful when dealing with, say, heroin or bath salts, but many people argue that the classification doesn't apply to weed. Those who oppose the Schedule 1 assignment argue that marijuana is almost never physically addictive and in no way a "gateway drug" to substances like heroin. Rather, it can provide an alternative to opiates, which are a gateway drug to heroin and fentanyl.

The medical uses of marijuana are an area of much interest. It's most commonly used to manage all different kinds of pain. It's also used to manage sleep-deprivation as well as nausea and loss of appetite related to chemotherapy or HIV/AIDS. But the full range of use may extend far beyond.

The same chemicals that produce the recreational high may be responsible for its health benefits. The compound in marijuana that gets all the attention is tetrahydrocannabinol, commonly known as THC. But there are actually hundreds of compounds, not all of which are psychoactive, in the plant. Many strains contain cannabidiol, or CBD, which can act as a sedative, anti-convulsant, anti-psychotic, anti-inflammatory agent, and even a neuro-protectant—all without getting the user high.

Card-carrying medical marijuana patients eager to learn more about Kief, in jar, at Los Angeles's first-ever cannabis farmer's market. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

CBD is what makes marijuana a viable treatment for epilepsy, even in severe cases among children. It's shown potential to combat heart disease to regulate insulin levels among diabetics. Because it's not physically habit-forming, it has enormous applications for treating heroin addiction, which has considerable implications for addressing the opioid crisis. It can even help cigarette smokers quit smoking.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society is in favor of more research on the medical benefits of marijuana, and would like to see it legalized at the state level to facilitate that research. It's funded studies of its own to develop medical marijuana's potential to improve not just pain among patients with MS, but spasms and frequent urination.

The body of evidence on medical marijuana for mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is a slightly mixed bag, but it may help diminish paranoia and anxiety. And finally, after decades of off-book use in the veteran community to help manage post-traumatic stress disorder, the first FDA-approved trial of smoked marijuana for veterans suffering from this condition launched earlier this year.