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Review Highs And Lows Of Medical Marijuana

April 14, 2010

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Marijuana has been shown to improve some medical problems in patients who weren’t helped by prescription drugs.  But research also indicates that marijuana use may cause or aggravate other health problems.  This balanced assessment of medical marijuana comes from the April Harvard Mental Health Letter, a publication of Harvard Medical School.

Marijuana has been in Montana news a lot lately, mostly because of the growing use of the state’s medical-marijuana law, which was enacted by voters approving an initiative.  Several Montana cities are considering restricting the businesses that are springing up to serve as “caregivers” for some of the 10,000 Montanans who have obtained permission under the law to possess an ounce of marijuana ( or six plants ) for treating specific medical problems.

In Billings, 53 medical-marijuana businesses have obtained city licenses.  The City Council created a medical-marijuana committee to make recommendations on possible zoning restrictions or other regulation of these businesses.  The committee held its first meeting last week.

The Harvard Mental Health Letter focused on use of marijuana in treating psychiatric disorders.  Montana law doesn’t include any psychiatric disorders in its list of ailments for which an individual may obtain a medical-marijuana card.  However, the Harvard report sheds some light on overall risks and benefits of marijuana used medicinally — or recreationally.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine conducted a comprehensive review of medical marijuana and concluded that the drug may be helpful in nerve pain relief, appetite stimulation for people with AIDS, and control of nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients.  However, the IOM recommended that marijuana be considered only for patients who weren’t helped by other drugs.

“There’s no question that recreational use of marijuana produces short-term problems with thinking, working memory and executive function ( the ability to focus and integrate different types of information ).” the Harvard report said.  “Long-term use of marijuana may cause subtle, but lasting impairments in executive function.”

The report made these key points:

There is not enough evidence to recommend medical marijuana as a treatment for any psychiatric disorder.  The psychiatric risks are well documented, and include addiction, anxiety and psychosis.

The drug appears to induce manic episodes and increases rapid cycling between manic and depressive moods in people who have bipolar disorder.

Limited research on marijuana and depression is inconclusive.  Some reports suggest that marijuana has antidepressant effects; other studies indicate that daily marijuana use may actually increase depression symptoms for some people and may even promote development of depression.

Observational studies suggest that one in nine people who smoke marijuana regularly becomes dependent on it.

Smoking marijuana exposes the lungs to multiple chemicals and poses many of the same respiratory health risks as smoking cigarettes.

The concentration of THC, the chemical that makes marijuana users high, has increased in the drug sold on the street.  Lower doses of THC can be sedating, but at higher doses, the chemical can induce anxiety.  Although marijuana reportedly calms some users, for 20 percent to 30 percent of recreational users it causes anxiety and panic attacks.

The Montana medical-marijuana law requires a licensed Montana physician to weigh the risks and benefits for a particular patient before recommending marijuana as a treatment — a recommendation that allows the individual to get a state medical-marijuana card for a year.  As Montanans grapple with the growth of medicinal marijuana, they must be aware of the serious risks.  Marijuana may be good medicine for certain individuals with certain ailments, but its negative side effects are numerous.

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