Marijuana for the Treatment of MS: A HealthCentral Explainer

CRegal Editor
  • We've all heard the debate about medical marijuana and its uses for some chronic conditions.  As of today, 17 states and Washington, DC have approved the use of medical marijuana.  Let's take a look at the arguments for and against the use of the controversial treatment option as it relates to multiple sclerosis.


    Good: Smoking marijuana reduces spasticity and pain

    A recent report from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has found that smoking marijuana can help reduce symptoms of MS, including spasticity and pain.  MS is caused by the breakdown of the lining of the nerves in the brain, leading to damaged nerves.  The brain  then sometimes fails to properly deliver "messages" to different parts of the body, leading to difficulties with walking, bladder dysfunction and cognitive problems. 

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    In this most recent report, 30 MS patients were tested; 15 were given a placebo to smoke, 15 were given marijuana to smoke.  The groups were then switched – the placebo group was given marijuana and the marijuana group was given the placebo – and in both studies the marijuana smokers reported reduced spasticity and pain.  Researchers used the Ashford scale, which tests range of motion and rigidity; the second part of the exam studied the pain levels in each patient.


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    The conclusion?  Jody Corey-Bloom, MD, PhD at UC San Diego and lead researcher said, "We found that smoked cannabis was superior to placebo in reducing symptoms and pain in patients with treatment-resistant spasticity, or excessive muscle contractions."


    Bad: Smoking marijuana impairs cognitive abilities

    Despite the aforementioned benefits of smoking marijuana for some MS patients, studies have not completely cleared the drug of any side effects.  Published in the February 13, 2008 volume of Neurology, a study out of the University of Toronto found that "people with multiple sclerosis who smoke marijuana are more likely to have emotional and memory problems."  The study interviewed 140 MS patients, including 10 who defined themselves as current marijuana users; these smokers were then "matched" by age, sex and length of time with MS to four individuals who did not use marijuana.


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    The study found that the marijuana users performed at a 50 percent slower pace on information processing tests.  There was also a significantly higher rate of anxiety, depression or other emotional problems in those who used marijuana over those who did not. 


    As noted by the researchers, emotional problems are more common among individuals with MS to begin with; increasing the risk by smoking marijuana may negate any positive benefits a patient experiences.


    Good:  Support from the medical community

    In addition to the jurisdictions that have passed laws legalizing the use of medical marijuana,  the American College of Physicians, the American Psychiatric Association and the Medical Studies Section of the American Medical Association have all made strong statements in favor of the use of cannabis for medical purposes


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    The National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the leading non-profit organization for MS, has provided millions of dollars to study the effects of marijuana on MS patients.  However, the NMSS has acknowledged the difficulty with properly assessing marijuana-related research as the studies become "unblinded" once a patient becomes aware of being "high."


    Montel Williams, a leading MS advocate, has openly championed the use of medical marijuana for MS symptoms. 


    A 2011 survey conducted by CBS News found that 77 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana on a prescription basis for serious medical conditions.


    Bad: Cannabis can be harmful to health

    A recent report from the British Lung Foundation warned that the "public dangerously underestimates the health risks linked to smoking cannabis."  One-third of 1,000 surveyed adults did not believe that marijuana had a negative health effect; 88 percent also incorrectly thought that cigarettes were more harmful to health than marijuana.  In fact, smoking one marijuana cigarette per day carries a 20 times higher risk of developing lung cancer as opposed to one tobacco cigarette per day.  Marijuana users take in nearly five times as much carbon monoxide and nearly four times as much tar as compared to tobacco smokers. 


    A different report from the British Lung Foundation linked smoking cannabis to tuberculosis, bronchitis and lung cancer. 


    Do you use marijuana for MS?  Is it effective?

    Do you support its availability as a means to treat MS symptoms?


    Update: A new study released from Plymoth University (UK) has indicated that the active ingredient in marijuana - tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC - has no effect on halting the progression of MS.  Researchers had once though that THC could provide "neuroprotective" effects, stopping or even reversing the demyelination process.   Unfortunately, those theories were found to be untrue, as THC has no effect on the progression of the disease.



    American Academy of Neurology.  (2008, February 13).  "Smoking Marijuana Impairs Cognitive Function in MS Patients."  American Academy of Neurology.  Retrieved from



    BBC News.  (2012, June 5).  "Health risks of cannabis 'underestimated,' experts warn."  BBC News: Health.  Retrieved from



    Shepherd, Rupert. (2012, May 15). "Marijuana May Relieve Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms." Medical News Today. Retrieved from



Published On: June 13, 2012