The use of marijuana for medical purposes is now legal in 23 states, and two more are considering legalization for medical use by 2016.1 On a federal level, however, the herb is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance (other Schedule 1 drugs include heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, methaqualone and peyote).
It received this label in 1970, when the Controlled Substance Act was enacted. This act labeled cannabis as a drug with a “high potential for abuse” and “no accepted medical use,” which clearly is not an accurate description – just ask US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
In an interview with CBS This Morning, Murthy said, “We have some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms, marijuana can be helpful.”2 His statement echoes a growing sentiment in the medical and scientific communities that the health benefits of marijuana should no longer be ignored.
It’s Time to Acknowledge the Medicinal Effects of Marijuana
Marijuana was a popular botanical medicine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, common in US pharmacies of the time (and its use can actually be dated back to 2700 BC3). Today a wealth of research shows marijuana does have outstanding promise as a medicinal plant, largely due to its cannabidiol (CBD) content.
Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body. There are cannabinoid receptors in your brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system, and more. Both the therapeutic and psychoactive properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates a cannabinoid receptor.
Research is still ongoing on just how extensive their impact is on our health, but to date it’s known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many body processes, including metabolic regulation, cravings, pain, anxiety, bone growth, and immune function.4
Some of the strongest research to date is focused on marijuana for pain relief and better sleep. In one study, just three puffs of marijuana a day for five days helped those with chronic nerve pain to relieve pain and sleep better.5
Americans for Safe Access also has links to research studies suggesting that cannabis may help in the treatment or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, noting:6
“To date, more than 15,000 modern peer-reviewed scientific articles on the chemistry and pharmacology of cannabis and cannabinoids have been published, as well as more than 2,000 articles on the body’s natural endocannabinoids. In recent years, more placebo-controlled human trials have also been conducted.
A 2009 review of clinical studies conducted over a 38-year period, found that ‘nearly all of the 33 published controlled clinical trials conducted in the United States have shown significant and measurable benefits in subjects receiving the treatment.’
The review’s authors note that cannabinoids have the capacity for analgesia through neuromodulation in ascending and descending pain pathways, neuroprotection, and anti-inflammatory mechanisms—all of which indicates that the cannabinoids found in cannabis have applications in managing chronic pain, muscle spasticity, cachexia, and other debilitating conditions.
Currently, cannabis is most often recommended as complementary or adjunct medicine. But there is a substantial consensus among experts in the relevant disciplines, including the American College of Physicians, that cannabis and cannabis-based medicines have therapeutic properties that could potentially treat a variety of serious and chronic illness.”
American Academy of Pediatrics Calls for DEA to Reclassify Marijuana
In January 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) updated their policy statement on marijuana.7 In their updated version, they acknowledge that cannabinoids from marijuana “may currently be an option for… children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate.”
While frowning on recreational use, the AAP gave their “strong” support for research and development as well as a “review of policies promoting research on the medical use of these compounds.”
They recommended downgrading marijuana from a schedule I drug on the DEA’s schedule to a schedule II drug, in order to facilitate increased research. The fact is, research to date has been very promising, but there’s still a lot we don’t know.
A large part of why there are so many unanswered questions about marijuana’s health potential is because it has been strictly controlled by the government, even when it comes to carefully controlled research. Americans for Safe Access explained:8
“It can be difficult to locate information about the safety and therapeutic value of cannabis. An unfortunate result of the federal prohibition of cannabis has been limited clinical research to investigate the safety and efficacy of cannabis to control symptoms of serious and chronic illness.
Many scientists have noted research is ‘hindered by a complicated federal approval process, limited availability of research grade marijuana, and the debate over legalization.’”
Potent Painkillers Are in a Less-Restricted Drug Class Than Marijuana
One of the strongest areas of research regarding marijuana’s health benefits pertains to pain. In 2010, the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) released a report on 14 clinical studies (most of which were FDA-approved, double-blind and placebo-controlled) on the use of marijuana for pain. The studies revealed that marijuana not only controls pain, but in some cases it did so better than available alternatives.9 While prescription painkillers were responsible for 16,600 deaths in 2010, one study found “little, if any effect of marijuana use on… mortality in men and… women.”10
Yet, ironically, oxycodone, fentanyl, and meperidine (Demerol), which are among the most commonly abused opioids and leading causes of opioid overdose deaths, are Schedule II drugs, meaning they should technically be less dangerous than marijuana, a Schedule I drug. Meanwhile, until recently certain opioid prescription drugs such as Vicodin were classified as Schedule III substances, which are defined as “drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.”
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only recently recommended tighter controls on painkiller prescriptions, and has announced its intention to reclassify hydrocodone-containing painkillers from Schedule III to Schedule II drugs. While critics of medical marijuana (which, by the way, are in the minority, as 85-95 percent of Americans are in favor of medical cannabis, and 58-59 percent are in favor of legalizing marijuana) point out its risks, they pale in comparison to those of opioids. While some do become addicted, or at least dependent, on marijuana, it is far less addictive – and far less deadly — than prescription opioids.
Is Marijuana a Potential Cancer Treatment?
In his medical practice, Dr. Frankel treats a wide variety of patients with medical cannabis, which has become his specialty. Despite the many claims of cannabis performing miracles, he’s reluctant to think of it as a cure for anything. Occasionally, however, patients will experience very dramatic results. For example, he has seen tumors virtually disappear in some patients using no other therapy except taking 40 to 60 milligrams of cannabinoids a day. The most common thing he sees in cancer patients, however, are tumors shrinking, or a metastasis disappearing. Sometimes tumors will shrink or vanish, only to reemerge in other areas, months later, and then shrink or vanish again…
And according to Americans for Safe Access:11
“To date, studies have shown that cannabinoids arrest many kinds of cancer growths through promotion of apoptosis (programmed cell death) in tumors and by arresting angiogenesis (increased blood vessel production). Cannabinoids have also been shown to halt the proliferation or spread of cancer cells in a wide variety of cancer types. Unlike conventional chemotherapy treatments that work by creating a toxic environment in the body that frequently compromises overall health, cannabinoids have been shown to selectively target tumor cells.
…The direct anti-tumor and anti-proliferation activity of cannabinoids, specifically CB1 and CB2 agonists, has now been demonstrated in dozens of studies across a range of cancer types, including brain (gliomas), breast, liver, leukemic, melanoma, phaeochromocytoma, cervical, pituitary, prostate and bowel. The anti-tumor activity has led in laboratory animals and in-vitro human tissues to regression of tumors, reductions in vascularisation (blood supply) and metastases (secondary tumors), as well as the direct destruction of cancer cells (apoptosis).”
In the video Run From the Cure, below, you can also see Rick Simpson, a man who was openly growing hemp in his backyard and using it to produce hemp oil, which he gave, for free, to his friends and family. The oil, Simpson and many others claim, has a remarkable healing effect on countless diseases and conditions, including cancer. After numerous raids by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Simpson was forced to seek asylum in another country, but his Web site, Phoenix Tears, still stands. There you can find instructions on how to produce hemp oil, as well as testimonials from people who say the oil has helped them.
Industrial Hemp to Be Grown in Washington State
In early 2015, Senate Bill 5012, to allow the growing of industrial hemp in Washington state, was passed. The growing of industrial hemp will now be authorized as an agricultural activity, and Washington State University will study its production, with a report set to be released in 2016.12 This is progress in the right direction, since the US is the only industrialized nation where growing industrial hemp is illegal. Well, technically it is not illegal, but growing it requires a permit from the DEA – and it is reportedly almost impossible to get one.
This is unfortunate because hemp is a hardy, renewable raw material that can be used to make health foods, natural body care, biofuel, plastic composites, construction materials, clothing, and much more. In Colonial times in Jamestown, Virginia, growing hemp was actually mandatory.13 According to Dr. Frankel, cannabis has been cultivated in Northern Europe since before the last Ice Age. Even back then, there were two very distinct groups of strains.
One is cannabis; the other is hemp. There’s plenty of confusion about the similarities and differences between these two plants. Despite their differences, the US DEA classifies all C. sativa varieties as “marijuana.” While they are subspecies of the same plant species, they look very different, and are extremely different in ways that really matter when it comes to medicinal (and recreational) use. To summarize:
- Hemp has less value for medicinal uses, as it only contains about 4 percent cannabidiol (CBD) and lacks many of the medicinal terpenes and flavonoids. It also contains less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which means it cannot produce a high or get you stoned. However, for many disease processes, THC is very much indicated and required. So, for many disease processes, CBD alone has much less value.
- Cannabis is potent medicine courtesy of high amounts (about 10-20 percent) of CBD, critical levels of medicinal terpenes, and flavonoids, as well as THC in varying ratios for various diseases. The higher the THC, the more pronounced its psychoactive effects
The fact that it is now coming back to the US is a positive sign, not only for the economy (currently most hemp seed, oil, and fiber is imported) but also because it means regulators are starting to understand the vast differences between hemp and marijuana — legalizing hemp is not the same thing as legalizing marijuana. Washington is not the only state slated to grow industrial hemp. At least 31 states have introduced, and 19 have passed, pro-hemp legislation.
On a federal level, the Agricultural Act of 2014 also included language in favor of hemp, and authorized “institutions of higher education or state department’s of agriculture in states that legalized hemp cultivation to promulgate regulations to grow hemp as an agricultural pilot program.”14 The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 is also attempting to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana so that hemp may be grown as an agricultural product.
Marijuana as a Schedule I Drug Supports Prisons as Profit Centers
In the US, where there are more prisoners than farmers, most new prisons are built in rural, often economically depressed, areas. They are heralded by economic development professionals as “economic engines,” which (along with gambling casinos and concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs) have become a leading source of proposed economic growth in rural America. In 2014, Sen. Dick Durbin was criticized for touting the activation of Thomson Correctional Center in rural Thomson, Illinois as the key to “the economic future of northern Illinois.”15 The federal government contributed $53 million to open the dormant prison, which Durbin also cited as an untapped source of jobs.
Research is lacking to show what, if any, benefits prisons bring to rural areas over time, but, as Prison Policy pointed out, “Hundreds of small rural towns and several whole regions have become dependent on an industry which itself is dependent on the continuation of crime-producing conditions.”16 This brings us back full-circle to marijuana – a plant that sends millions into the US prison system. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), marijuana arrests account for more than half of all drug arrests in the US. And of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests made between 2001 and 2010, the vast majority (88 percent) were for simply having marijuana.17
If marijuana were legalized, these arrests would cease… and perhaps the profit-centers in rural America – the prisons – would cease to exist as well. Pharmaceutical profits could also be threatened. There’s no doubt that marijuana needs to be rescheduled, and Dr. Frankel actually thinks marijuana should be de-scheduled altogether, as a plant really does not belong on any schedule of a controlled substance. The federal government, meanwhile, seems to want to get rid of medical use of marijuana, which, in light of its many medicinal effects, begs the question: Why?
According to Dr. Frankel, the answer is simple. “They want it. This is a huge market,” he says. And yes, medical cannabis is clearly competition to the pharmaceutical industry, as the cannabis plant can take the place of a wide variety of synthetic drugs, especially for mood and anxiety disorders. The last thing they want is a therapy that’s going to take away from their bottom line, and, perhaps, the last thing the prison system wants is to legalize a plant that’s going to take away from theirs.