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Looking at the effects of medical marijuana

September 13, 2016 GMT

In the two decades since California became the first state to approve a medical marijuana program, similar laws have spread across the country like, well, a weed.

People with certain medical conditions—ranging from chronic pain to glaucoma to multiple sclerosis—now can use marijuana in 25 states and Washington, D.C. More than a dozen other states have passed laws legalizing the use of cannabis extracts for epileptic conditions.

Though the country remains a patchwork of laws, regulations and opinions about the use of marijuana, both for recreational and medicinal use, more people and health care professionals are exploring the possibilities of the once-taboo plant.

The uses and the rules

Dr. Suzanne Labriola, a palliative care specialist with Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Health Network, says the state’s new medical marijuana law has opened the door for researching new treatments. For example, it is an alternative treatment for people who suffer from anorexia caused by other medical conditions.

Other alternatives, including hormones or steroids, have high risks of side effects. But marijuana, allowed in Pennsylvania in synthetic form, may offer a less problematic and more effective form of relief.

“With medical marijuana, the hope is more benefits from fewer pills,” Labriola says. “One pill may have the ability to treat pain and nausea.”

Depending on your home state, the conditions for which medical marijuana can be prescribed vary. In New York, for example, the list is long: HIV or AIDS, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, spinal chord injuries and inflammatory bowel disease are just a few of the approved conditions. In Minnesota, the list is shorter and includes Tourette syndrome and terminal illness.

The drug helps prompt relaxation, calmness and reduced anxiety, which can help quell seizures. It also multiplies the effects of chemicals your body produces to handle pain and inflammation.

Depending on the form in which it is administered, medical marijuana can come with some side effects, like dizziness, drowsiness and short-term memory loss.

Much to discover

Labriola says the U.S.’s relatively short history with medical marijuana means American doctors and patients are at a disadvantage. Research is limited, and most of it has come from other countries with more permissive laws.

“A lot of literature comes from outside the U.S. Since it’s not approved nationally, it’s hard to do trials with it,” she says.

Plus, other considerations are still being worked out on a state-by-state basis. What part of the plant can be used, and in what form? What are the regulations and restrictions for how and where plants can be grown? How do you keep it clean and pesticide free?

Labriola says states considering new marijuana laws are paying close attention to what happens in those that are expanding the legal boundaries. Colorado, which has legalized marijuana for recreational and medical use, is a particularly interesting test case.

“I am hopeful to learn more and have it as an option that’s more easily accessible to our patients, and with less stigma,” she says.