The two main cannabinoids from the marijuana plant that have been isolated for medicinal use are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol).
The FDA has approved two drugs containing THC that are used to treat nausea and increase appetite in cancer and AIDS patients, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Another medication containing CBD treats severe forms of epilepsy in children.
Medical Use of Marijuana
Marijuana is derived from Cannabis sativa and used both medicinally and recreationally, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It contains the compounds THC and CBD, which affect the body and brain to produce relief from a variety of symptoms associated with medical conditions.
The impact of marijuana on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain also produces the feeling of being high, which drives its use as a recreational drug.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana for use as a medicine, it is legal in some states for medicinal purposes and in some states for both medicinal and recreational use.
A recent study from the Journal of Pain Research found that 46 percent of respondents reported using cannabis as an alternative to prescription narcotics, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants. People were more likely to substitute cannabis for other prescriptions if they were suffering from pain conditions, depression, and anxiety.
How Marijuana Works
Marijuana acts on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. Natural cannabinoid chemicals in the body regulate feelings of pleasure, thinking, concentration, appetite, pain, and memory, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Cannabinoids are also found in the marijuana plant. They are related to the THC in marijuana and responsible for the feeling of being high that is produced when marijuana is smoked.
THC products are used to reduce nausea associated with chemotherapy treatment, increase appetite, reduce pain and inflammation, and influence muscle control problems.
CBD is also a cannabinoid, but it does not get people high in the way THC does. CBD products are not useful for recreational purposes because they do not produce the intoxicating effects that THC does.
CBD is used to reduce pain and inflammation, and to control seizures.
What Can It Treat?
The FDA has approved a liquid medication called Epidolex that contains CBD and is used to treat epilepsy in children.
Researchers are still studying the effects of these cannabinoid compounds for use in other medicines. The FDA requires rigorous testing of medicinal products before approving them for use, which is part of why marijuana has not been legalized at the federal level for medicinal use everywhere.
The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that marijuana and marijuana-derived products are currently being explored to treat the symptoms of many different illnesses.
- AIDS wasting syndrome
- Multiple sclerosis-related muscle wasting
- Weight loss
While these potential therapies are being explored, many people have concerns about the potential dangers of marijuana and the legal implications of consuming it in areas where it has not been legalized.
Some of the risks of long-term use of marijuana, according to NIDA, include the following:
- Impaired brain development in minors
- Lung irritation from smoking
- Increased heart rate and potential cardiac problems
- Child development problems in pregnant women
- Cognitive impairment
What Alternatives to Marijuana Are Available?
There are some alternatives to marijuana that can be used to treat some of the same symptoms and conditions. These include other herbs and plants and some over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Natural herbs and plants have been used for centuries to treat various conditions and to supplement health in other ways. Some herbs also contain natural cannabinoids that can act on the same cannabinoid receptors in the brain as marijuana.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health provides information on many different natural substances that are used to treat many of the same symptoms and conditions in which marijuana is used. While they may prove useful for some people, they also have some associated risks. The research has not always been conclusive on some of these substances.
These have been explored as potential remedies for the same symptoms and conditions that marijuana is used for. Herbs that can be used as potential substitutes include:
- Kava-kava. This botanical is a substance that can induce relaxation, calm anxiety, and relieve stress. It has also been linked to a risk of liver disease, which is increased if combined with alcohol
- Valerian root. This is a flowering plant that is available as an herbal supplement to treat insomnia and anxiety, but the evidence associated with it is inconsistent. It is generally safe but can cause headache or dizziness, itching, and stomach upset
- Ginger. This herb can be used as a natural nausea remedy, and it has been used to treat stomach upset for centuries. Ginger can be made into tea, eaten raw, and used to make ginger ale in order to treat nausea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. It may have some interactions with blood thinners
- Turmeric and black pepper. This commonly used spice combination can be taken as an oil or herbal supplement and used as an anti-inflammatory agent. The two substances are more effective when combined and have been used for arthritis, gallbladder problems, liver, skin, and stomach conditions. The combination is generally safe, but high doses may cause stomach upset
- Coneflower (Echinacea). This flowering plant is often used to boost the immune system. It can alleviate arthritis, inflammation, migraines, and anxiety. It is safe to take, but research has been inconclusive about its effectiveness.
Over-the-counter or prescription remedies include:
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief. Since medical marijuana is commonly used to treat pain, over-the-counter pain relievers can be substituted to reduce pain in many cases.
- Anti-nausea medications. There are prescription options for nausea relief, including medications like Zofran.
These alternative options can be explored, and people may find they provide effective relief for some of the same symptoms they previously used marijuana to treat.
The dosage amount of any given supplement impacts the effectiveness and risks associated with the substance, so it is essential to discuss these options with a doctor.
What Are the Risks of Alternative Options?
All drugs and herbal preparations have risks. Deciding on the best substance to use always involves a balance between the risks and benefits of use.
Risks are heightened with prolonged use. Many substances are only meant to be taken for short periods of time because the risks accumulate the longer you take the drug.
Even herbal supplements can interact with other drugs or medications, so it is important to consider any potential interactions.
Acetaminophen is a commonly used over-the-counter pain reliever that can safely treat headaches, muscle aches, and pain from arthritis or other conditions. Taking too much of this drug can cause liver damage, according to the FDA.
Ibuprofen is an effective treatment for many types of pain, but it can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke when used as a long-term medication, the FDA reports.
Zofran is the brand name for ondansetron, which is used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, according to NLM. It can also cause constipation, fatigue, and headaches.
Risks of Marijuana
Marijuana compounds may indeed have some medicinal use for the relief of certain symptoms. However, more research needs to be done to understand the risks and benefits of marijuana-based products fully.
There may be circumstances and conditions for which marijuana is a less risky option, particularly for people who want a more natural alternative to prescription drugs like opioid pain medications and benzodiazepine sedatives. However, marijuana is not without side effects. It comes with some of the same risks for tolerance and dependency as other drugs.
Marijuana remains illegal in many states and at the federal level, so people may face legal consequences as a result of marijuana possession. There are legal alternatives available in many pharmacies and drugstores that address many of the symptoms that marijuana-based products can relieve.
There are not consistent quality assurances on illegally purchased products. Some sources of marijuana could contain harmful substances, such as pesticides, glass, coloring, and other additives.
Talk to Your Doctor
Finding relief from painful and distressful symptoms is beneficial for your health and well-being. In many cases, alternatives to marijuana can provide similar benefits with fewer risks. Some of these alternative substances are available over the counter or online.
Discuss treatment options with your doctor. There are always individual considerations, including your response to certain medications or your personal and family health history. Discuss the risks and benefit with your treatment providers before making a decision about which alternatives are best for you.