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Biology 202
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

The Medicinal Marijuana Debate

Cassidy Garrison-Kimmel

For years research groups, certain state governments, pharmaceutical companies and even some physicians have battled with the federal government over the legalization of the marijuana plant for medicinal purposes. Large amounts of research have been devoted to both sides of the argument; however, many of the studies contradict each other when naming the benefits and risks of marijuana. How can we decide whether the therapeutic values of marijuana outweigh the hazards of the drug when there have been no definitive findings? First we must review what is known about marijuana, such as how the chemicals in it affect the body, and then pick which study results seem more scientifically sound.

For over 4000 years and in many different cultures, marijuana has been used medicinally for pain relief and treatment of many ailments. These ailments include digestive disorders, hemorrhaging, congestion, asthma and insomnia. The drug has been administered orally, topically and through inhalation. It was not until 1937 that using marijuana became a federal offense with the introduction of the Marijuana Tax Act ((6)). Today, marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which defines it as "highly addictive with no medical usefulness"-the same definition given to heroin ((4)).

The opioids in heroin and the cannabinoids in marijuana are used similarly by the brain. They either bridge synapses in the brain so that messages can be transmitted, in which case they are acting as agonists, or they block the agonist's binding site so that messages cannot be transmitted across synapses. In the latter case, the cannabinoids or opioids are acting as antagonists ((3)).

Cannabinoids and opioids do not cause identical effects, however. There is a naturally occurring chemical in the brain called anandamide, which is very chemically similar to the cannabinoids in marijuana. Anandamide triggers certain nerve receptors that are involved with pain control, memory and cognition, motor functioning, nausea and vomiting, and internal eye pressure ((7)). Therefore, it is not surprising that in many studies marijuana has been found to:

1) Ease nausea and vomiting while stimulating the appetite;
2) Reduce pain;
3) Relieve intra-ocular pressure in glaucoma patients;
4) Control muscle spasms, which has proven helpful to sufferers of spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and Tourette's syndrome ((2), (6)).

Do the risks of using marijuana prevail over all of these supposed benefits? The federal branch of the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a statement containing the arguments behind why the government opposes medicinal marijuana. According to the DEA, marijuana is highly addictive, usually serves as a "gateway drug", weakens the immune system and causes cancer ((4)). But how can we believe all these statements when the government lists very few sources for their data? One study conducted by the United States concluded that marijuana smoke may lead to cancer by causing abnormalities in the cells that line the lungs. Although this verifies one of the DEA's claims, the study also claimed that dependence on the drug is rare. The same study found no evidence for the argument that marijuana is a gateway drug; actually, the research states that the true gateway drugs are common legal substances, namely, tobacco and alcohol ((1)).

Other arguments against using marijuana medically often concern the fact that if it were legalized, it would be the only prescribed drug that would have to be smoked. Scientists are attempting to discover the chemicals and cannabinoids in marijuana that lead to positive medical results. They hope that these chemicals can be isolated and administered in other ways ((3)). So far, the only legal alternative to marijuana is the synthetic version of THC, Marinol, which is taken in pill form. Marinol, however, has its own disadvantages: First, absorption of a pill takes much longer than absorption of inhaled smoke, too long to be of much use to nausea sufferers. Also, Marinol causes more severe psychoactive effects than marijuana. And who wants to pay 500 to 900 dollars a month for Marinol when marijuana can be grown free of cost ((5))?

It seems as if the only source that provided entirely negative information on marijuana was the federal government. Is there any way our leaders can compromise with advocates of medicinal marijuana? What should be done about the situation? I think that more studies should be done on which chemicals in marijuana cause which reactions in the body. Also, I think that it should be determined whether the rare instances in which people become addicted to marijuana are physical addictions or psychological addictions. If it is discovered that the addictions are merely psychological, what is the difference between marijuana and most other drugs? Almost anything can be psychologically addictive. Finally, from what I have read, most results seem to show that marijuana could easily be reclassified as a Schedule II drug, which would allow it to be used as medicine but with severe restrictions. Why deny ill people almost definite relief?



1) Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base

2) Medical Marijuana: full analysis of the Institute of Medicine's commissioned report

3) Scientific American: Healing Haze?

4) Drug Enforcement Administration: The Medical Myths of Marijuana

5) ARDPArk, Inc.: Synthetic THC/ Marinol

6) Why all the controversy? What does the research actually show?

7) New, Emerging Evidence of Marijuana's Medical Efficacy

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