The Question of Cannabis: A Doctor’s Assessment of the Risks & Benefits of Marijuana

woman holding cannabis leaf

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Under the recently passed Cannabis Act, Canadians have the right to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis. It is used recreationally because it gives a euphoric, pleasurable feeling with decreased anxiety, alertness, depression and tension.

Some people feel that colours seem brighter and more vivid. It reduces reaction time and impairs attention, concentration, short-term memory and risk assessment, hence it can increase accident risk significantly. Side effects include numbness, dizziness, low blood pressure, anxiety, confusion, psychosis, and hallucinations. It can also exacerbate asthma.

In Washington and Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal for some time, there has been increased use among minors, higher rates of traffic deaths from driving while high, more marijuana-related poisonings and hospitalizations and a persistent black market. On the other hand, with regulation, one knows exactly what one is buying, and the government taxes it. Other legal substances, such as alcohol, are potentially associated with much more harm.

With that said, Canadians have been using medical marijuana for years. In 2001, Canadian Medical Marihuana Access Regulations granted legal access to cannabis for individuals with HIV-AIDS and other illnesses with a doctor’s prescription. Authorized patients can grow their own or obtain it from authorized producers or Health Canada. The most common use of medical marijuana is to treat pain and nausea.

Disorders it has also been purported to treat include ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, arthritis, back and neck pain, brain injury, cancer, nausea, pain, colitis, Crohn’s disease, depression, eating disorders, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney failure, migraines, MS, muscle spasms, PTSD, arthritis, sleep disorders and spinal cord injury. Many of these diseases are more common in the older demographic.

There is no strong evidence that marijuana use is a cause of cancer, heart attack, stroke, arteritis or atrial fibrillation, but there does appear to be an increased risk of head and neck, lung and bladder cancer for those who use it over an extended period of time.

Cannabinoids are the active chemical ingredient in marijuana with more than 100 cannabinoids identified, but most research has focused on two of them – THC and CBD. Some studies suggest that THC is effective in treating PTSD, reduces nausea and vomiting from cancer treatment, stimulates appetite in HIV-AIDS and helps with insomnia, inflammation and pain. CBD may be effective in treating epilepsy, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and Parkinson’s disease.

There is evidence of marijuana’s effectiveness in treating chemo-
therapy-induced nausea and vomiting, neuropathic (nerve) pain, and MS or spinal cord-related muscle spasticity. Certainly, over the next few years more studies will determine whether medical cannabis is effective for other conditions.

If you think cannabis could help you, it is worth speaking with your doctor. However, it may still be worth trying medications that doctors have more experience with. On the other hand, we know about the dangers of opiates (somnolence, fatigue, addiction, constipation), which are often used to treat pain.