Medical Marijuana: Is It For You?

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Many cancer survivors claim that cannabis (marijuana) can be used to ease the nausea and vomiting often associated with chemotherapy. Are you challenged by tough chemo side effects? Medical marijuana is deemed illegal by the federal government, but legal in 16 states; find out what the legal ramifications of its use are and, if you want to try it for your chemo-induced nausea, how you can obtain it.


    What’s the first thing you think of when you hear that dreaded word?

    Hair loss, right? Quickly followed by nausea. And vomiting.

    While the various combinations of chemo drugs come with all sorts of side effects – some mild, some potentially deadly – it seems hair loss and nausea are the two we fear the most.

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    Hair loss is inevitable, if you’re taking chemo drugs that cause it; there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. But nausea? There are lots of good anti-nausea drugs available to chemo patients today, many more so than there were even 10 years ago. Given with or directly after treatment, they can usually moderate that particularly unpleasant side effect.

    But not always.

    Despite all the advances in anti-nausea drugs, some women find their systems stubbornly resistant to traditional treatment. And, rather than endure weeks of nausea whose severity can be incapacitating, these women look outside the system for help: to the natural herb cannabis, a.k.a. marijuana – called medical marijuana when it’s used for treatment of health issues rather than recreation.

    Sounds like a wise thing to do, right? When traditional treatments don’t work, check out alternative or complementary therapies. There are millions of people with back problems who, having found no relief from their family doctor, are helped by a chiropractor. Or chronic pain sufferers who’ve exhausted all the drug possibilities, then benefit from acupuncture.

    The difference? Chiropractic medicine and acupuncture are legal. Marijuana isn’t; at least according to the federal government.

    How, then, has medical marijuana grown to a $1.7 billion industry that’s projected to double in the next 5 years?

    By its steady growth at the state level. Sixteen states, plus the District of Columbia, make it possible for patients with recognized medical conditions, ranging from cancer to muscular dystrophy to glaucoma, to obtain medical marijuana. If you live in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, D.C., Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Washington, medical marijuana may be available to you.

    Legislation to legalize medical marijuana is pending in six more states: Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

    And, if you live in Maryland, legislation passed in May “remove[s] criminal penalties for medical marijuana patients who met the specified conditions, but patients are still subject to arrest.”

    Subject to arrest?! That doesn’t sound good. But it’s true: medical marijuana, despite state laws to the contrary, is still an illegal schedule I drug, right up there with LSD and heroin.

  • A petition was filed back in 2002 by a number of groups hoping the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would bump marijuana’s schedule I status down to schedule III, IV, or V.

    This reclassification would mean regulators agree marijuana has less potential for abuse than drugs such as cocaine, AND has a recognized medical benefit. It would be a controlled substance (you need a prescription to get it), but marijuana would no longer be illegal.

    In late June 2011, the DEA finally responded, refusing to reclassify marijuana. The reason? “It has no accepted medical use,” according to a June 21 letter from DEA administrator Michele Leonhart.

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    And Leonhart’s response wasn’t unexpected. Despite much anecdotal evidence that medical marijuana works for a variety of patients; and despite pleas by doctors from around the country, those who’ve seen its success first-hand and continue to advise their patients to use it, the official governmental stance remains unchanged.

    The feds agree that THC, one of marijuana’s chief chemical compounds, is useful in treating a variety of illnesses and side effects; but only in its synthetic form, dronabinol (brand name: Marinol).

    So, given a legal alternative, why wouldn’t patients choose Marinol?

    Because it’s a mixed blessing. Since it lacks all the various compounds in the natural cannabis plant, patients who’ve tried both Marinol and marijuana claim Marinol isn’t as effective as medical marijuana.

    While marijuana starts to work within minutes of being inhaled, it takes over an hour for Marinol to take effect. In addition, many users report that Marinol, available in only a single dosage/strength, comes with an unpleasantly strong psychedelic effect, much more than they’d get from the few puffs of marijuana they need to ameliorate their symptoms.

    So, where does that leave you – a breast cancer patient suffering from extreme nausea and vomiting, and willing to look outside the system for relief?

    The National Institutes of Health, citing inconclusive results from three small trials and an overall lack of data, concludes, “At present, there is insufficient evidence to recommend inhaling cannabis as a treatment for cancer-related symptoms or cancer treatment–related side effects outside the context of well-designed clinical trials.”

    That’s the government’s take on medical marijuana for cancer issues. But clinical trials continue; and if their results reflect the experience of the thousands of cancer patients who’ve benefited by medical marijuana, perhaps in the future it’ll be legalized – at the federal level, as well as in a number of states. 

    I can’t advise you to break federal law. But if you want to try marijuana for your nausea, speak with your doctor. If you live in a state where it’s legal, s/he should be able to help you work through the system. In most cases, you’ll need to register and receive an ID card, after which you’ll be able to obtain marijuana through a registered dispensary.

  • Don’t try to circumvent the system; if your oncologist isn’t willing to work with you to obtain medical marijuana, look for a doctor who will. You’ll need a prescription from a doctor for medical marijuana; the lack of one puts you in danger of federal prosecution.

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    And when you’re fighting cancer, being arrested due to the treatment you choose is the last thing you need.

Published On: September 02, 2011