USA — At this exact moment in American history, we find ourselves at a very interesting juncture. Near the center of that juncture is marijuana.
On the one hand we have a large group of people in the United States, backed by current federal law, who believe that marijuana is a vile, pernicious drug that should be suppressed at all costs. And right now the costs are extremely high. There are the costs of law enforcement, imprisonment of users, international interdiction, drug crime, lost tax revenues, etc. There is also collateral damage like the ban on hemp, which would otherwise be an environmentally friendly way to produce natural fibers.
On the other hand we have a group of people who believe that marijuana is no different from alcohol, and should be legal just like alcohol. Their point of view is getting a hearing right now because of the recession. The legalization and subsequent taxation of marijuana would generate a lot of revenue. And it would also eliminate many of the aforementioned costs. The combination could help out cash-strapped cities and states.
Sitting somewhere between these two warring factions is medical marijuana. The goal of medical marijuana is to use of the primary active ingredient in marijuana (THC) and other compounds found in cannabis for legitimate medical therapies. Let’s take a look at how these therapies work.
The best known use of medical marijuana is for the treatment of chemotherapy side effects. Chemotherapy drugs work by killing rapidly dividing cells like cancer cells. Unfortunately, tissues in the intestinal tract divide rapidly as well. This effect (along with other problems associated with chemotherapy) leads to nausea and vomiting. THC has a calming effect on the stomach.
Another side effect of chemotherapy, as well as cancer in general and many wasting diseases, is a loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss. THC has a well-known effect on the appetite known colloquially as “the munchies”. People who use medical marijuana often depend on the munchies to avoid wasting away.
You might be wondering why marijuana would cause people to eat. It’s because THC mimics a neurotransmitter in the brain, and this neurotransmitter happens to play an important role in hunger.
Medical marijuana can also help with glaucoma, a disease which leads to excess pressure inside the eye. This pressure is dangerous because it eventually damages the retina, causing blindness. THC has been shown to reduce the pressure, although the effect is short-term.
There is also pain relief. The use of marijuana to ease pain preceded the use of aspirin. In certain conditions, marijuana is very effective because it reduces inflammation and relaxes the patient.
All these therapeutic uses are great. The problem with medical marijuana from a medical perspective is the traditional method of delivery. Doctors are not crazy about smoking. Therefore, scientists have been working on ways to isolate and deliver the beneficial compounds found in marijuana. There are now several pill forms of THC, as well as a THC inhaler that delivers the drug through the lungs without the smoke. The advantage of inhaling the drug is that people with severe nausea can’t keep down a pill.
The problem for patients has been the whole legal and law-enforcement environment around marijuana. Only a few states recognize marijuana as a medicine, and even in those states, people using marijuana for legitimate medicinal purposes can run into problems.
So what will happen with marijuana, both medical and recreational, in the future? It is hard to say. Like many other lightning-rod topics in our culture (gay marriage, guns, abortion and immigration all come to mind), the process of reaching a societal consensus can be lengthy. It is true that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, and it is true that revenue and reduced enforcement costs from its legalization would create billions of extra dollars for cities and states to spend wisely. It will be interesting to see whether legalization happens and, if so, how long it would take.
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