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As more and more US states modernize their marijuana laws to make the medical use of marijuana legal (at least as far as state and local law enforcement officials are concerned), more and more claims are made for its benefits. But are they true?

Harvard study says marijuana cures cancer, one website tells us. Miracle cannabis oil cures all diseases, but Big Pharma and the law enforcement industrial complex does not want us to have it, screams another.

As everyone knows, the pharmaceutical industry is big business. The World Health Organization estimates that by the end of 2013, global sales of prescription drugs will top $1.1 trillion dollars.

But the marijuana industry is big business, too. In the United States, marijuana produces greater cash value than all but three other American-grown crops, and in both Florida and California, marijuana sales are greater than the revenues generated by growing citrus or other fruits and vegetables.

In the United States alone, marijuana sales top $36 billion per year. So is there possibly an economic incentive to make people as psychologically dependent on marijuana as they are on pharmaceuticals? Are the claims about marijuana hope or hype?

Let's take a look at what we know for sure about the benefits of marijuana in treating medical conditions.

Investigating the use of marijuana and dronabinol in treating weight loss from AIDS

American medical researchers have been investigating the use of marijuana and dronabinol, a marijuana derivative, in treating weight loss from AIDS since the early 1990's.

When the studies are analyzed together with a statistical tool called meta-analysis, people who use marijuana or dronabinol are about twice as likely to start regaining weight (that is, they are twice as likely not to starve to death during the study) as people who do not use pot or its derivatives. Still, marijuana and dronabinol make a difference less than 50% of the time. Weight gain is usually about 2 pounds (a kilo), but that is often enough to prevent death.

Is marijuana oil alone sufficient to cure any kind of cancer?

Some websites announce that marijuana oil alone is sufficient to cure any kind of cancer. Typically the claim is made in the headline of a page, and then the citations in the page itself refute the headline rather than support it. There is good reason to believe that marijuana can reduce bone pain in stage 3 and stage 4 cancer, especially prostate cancer. But we never get before-and-after images of individuals treated with marijuana oil for other kinds of cancer and other stages of cancer.

Marijuana can reduce the persistent pain caused by nerve damage

There is good evidence that smoking pot (marijuana) can reduce the persistent pain caused by nerve damage, in conditions such as diabetic neuropathy, peripheral neuropathy, complex regional pain syndrome, focal nerve injury, or spinal cord injury.

There is good evidence that THC suppositories (THC being tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) can relieve the spastic muscle movements that multiple sclerosis (MS) sometimes causes.

There is no doubt that a component of marijuana called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol can reduce the production of fluid in the eye, lowering pressure in the eye, and relieving glaucoma. However, the effect wears off after 3 hours--any time of night or day.

There is good evidence that dronabinol, the FDA-approved marijuana derivative, can relieve nausea and vomiting in a number of chronic conditions, including cancer.

In 2013, that's about all even the most ardent supporters of medical marijuana can say for the medical benefits of the herb--but it's no small accomplishment to reverse pain, nausea, vomiting, and wasting conditions that are the actual cause of death for many people who suffer chronic disease. But has marijuana received a fair review by the scientific community?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Grant I, Atkinson JH, Gouaux B, Wilsey B. Medical marijuana: clearing away the smoke. Open Neurol J. 2012. 6:18-25. doi: 10.2174/1874205X01206010018. Epub 2012 May 4.
  • Ramos JA, Bianco FJ. The role of cannabinoids in prostate cancer: Basic science perspective and potential clinical applications. Indian J Urol. 2012 Jan. 28(1):9-14. doi: 10.4103/0970-1591.94942.
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