By Darisse Smith
For some suffering from chronic pain, marijuana is miracle medicine. For others, marijuana is a dangerous, addictive drug. Looking through the lens of chronic pain, is marijuana miraculous, harmful or something in between?
Let’s take a look how marijuana works on one’s system. The human body has its own endocannabinoid system, a series of receptors and binding sites that work against and with each other to reduce or increase different symptoms in the body such as pain, appetite and anxiety. The cannabis plant contains similar phytocannabinoids that act in a similar way, the most known being THC and CBD. One area of the brain that lacks cannabinoid receptors is the medulla, where breathing and respiratory processes are regulated. Since there are no cannabinoid receptors in this part of the brain, one cannot overdose on marijuana (though higher doses can create some odd and for some, uncomfortable side effects).
Anecdotal evidence and some scientific research demonstrate that marijuana can be effective for many different illnesses and symptoms. Marijuana can be effective for acute, chronic and neuropathic pain, anxiety, loss of appetite, different mental disorders and epilepsy, among others. The therapeutic benefits of marijuana are difficult to study since the FDA does not recognize marijuana as a medicinal plant, making scientific study difficult, limited and underfunded. There are a few scientific studies, though, such as one from the University of Michigan that recently conducted research into marijuana and its usefulness as medicine. The Michigan study demonstrated that among the pain patients tested who were on an opioid regimen, using marijuana led to increased quality of life and mobility, less side effects and even caused a reduction in opioid medication in some cases. Another study performed by Dr. Mark Ware at McGill University in Canada, marijuana provides reasonable pain relief without major side effects.
On the other side of the argument, there are those who view marijuana not as medicine but as a harmful, addictive and illegal drug. Opponents of marijuana use argue that the body’s endocannabinoid system, instead of being enhanced by marijuana is overwhelmed by the phytocannabinoids, causing impairment, paranoia, slow reaction time, euphoria and an increase in appetite. When one smokes marijuana, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and in young people, THC can impact development of the brain. Whether or not marijuana is addictive is up for debate, though many anti-drug websites equate addiction purely to physical tolerance. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can create a physical tolerance leading to withdrawal symptoms such as restlessness and irritability in heavy users. “Of course, tolerance doesn’t mean addiction. A good definition found for describing addiction as it relates to marijuana is by Dr. Roger Roffman, professor of social work at the University of Washington: “Addiction results from a combination of biological and psychological factors that contribute to conditioned behavioral patterns that are very difficult to stop or resist.” According to a 2014 study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 4.176 million people used marijuana and of that number, 138,000 voluntarily sought treatment for marijuana use.
When one suffers from debilitating pain, finding pain relief which allows an acceptable quality of life is a life-long struggle. With opioids being under attack these days due to the prescription drug epidemic, marijuana can be a reasonable alternative for many. Others who may struggle with previous addiction will have to decide what therapy works best for them without serious risk of further addiction and negative consequences. This is my current struggle-do I use marijuana to treat my various ailments or, with my history of opioid addiction, do I keep looking? I’ll let you know what I decide.
Darisse Smith is a contributor to the National Pain Report. An Army veteran who has suffered from chronic pain for over a decade.