Marijuana: Risks & Benefits
Everyone has their own opinions about marijuana and whether or not its legalization is a good idea. The purpose of this article is not to persuade you to think one way or another. Rather, it’s to share with you what is already known—and still remains unknown—about this drug.
It’s important to know this information because marijuana appears to be here to stay—if not recreationally, then definitely in the medical landscape. While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, today 10 states plus the District of Columbia have fully legalized and decriminalized it, and 23 other states have legalized it for medical use.
Marijuana comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, which contains more than 100 chemical compounds called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are structurally similar to chemicals the body naturally makes that are involved in pain, appetite, memory, and movement. Cannabinoids bind to specific receptors in brain and nerve cells, which can result in:
- Decreased anxiety and depression
- Reduced pain and inflammation
- Relief from nausea and vomiting
- Relaxed muscles
- Increased appetite
As a result, medicinal marijuana has the potential to treat many conditions that cause these symptoms, including eating disorders, mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia), multiple sclerosis and other neurological issues, chronic pain, cancer, AIDS, and serious digestive problems like Crohn’s disease.
With that said, medical marijuana has only been approved for the treatment of two severe forms of epilepsy. Why?
Well, from a research standpoint, it’s hard to study marijuana because it is still classified under federal law as a schedule 1 substance—meaning high risk for abuse and little medicinal value. While many can (and do) debate the validity of these labels, there’s still little incentive for scientists to cut through mounds of red tape to get a “pass” to research marijuana’s benefits.
Some studies have been published though, and they show that marijuana does provide relief from symptoms associated with disease. In a review and meta-analysis, marijuana was determined to provide moderate relief from chronic pain and spasticity (muscular contraction that causes tightness or stiffness).
Other research, however, shows marijuana has little-to-no influence on symptoms like chronic pain.
Keep in mind, marijuana, like most drugs, may work really well for some people but not at all in others. What does make it unique from other drugs is its ability to be used many different ways. You can smoke it a variety of ways (rolling the dried plant, vaping the oil, etc.), and you can cook/bake with it. Tinctures can be applied sublingually (under the tongue), and there are also pills, capsules, sprays, lotions, oils, skin patches, bath soaks, and even drinks. You choose your delivery method based on your symptoms and what effects you wish to achieve.
While all of these forms are considered safe when used as prescribed for the short term, marijuana does have some side effects, including dry mouth, temporary impairment of mental function, dizziness, and changes in blood pressure. Additionally, little is known about what may come from long-term use. For instance, some researchers are concerned that smoking marijuana can contribute to many of the same health problems as cigarettes.
Alternatives to Marijuana
Understandably, medicinal marijuana may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Not to mention, there are still many states in which medical and recreational use is completely illegal.
While there are no supplements that provide all the same qualities of marijuana, you can still achieve some of the calming and anxiety-quelling benefits from certain nutrients.
Supplemental GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is at the top of the list. This amino acid acts as a calming neurotransmitter. (Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that communicate information to the rest of the body.) GABA helps balance out the “excitatory” neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, that fire up during bouts of anxiety. GABA can be taken alone or along with other herbs that enhance your natural production of GABA. These include:
- Kava, a powerful sedative and anti-anxiety herb. One study of 58 patients with generalized anxiety disorder found that kava produced a significant reduction in anxiety compared to placebo. The affect was even greater in moderate to severe cases. The herb was also well tolerated with few adverse reactions. (Note: While kava is generally considered safe, it has been loosely linked to liver damage when taken long term. To stay on the safe side, use it on a short-term basis and avoid it entirely if you already have problems with your liver.)
- L-theanine is an amino acid that stimulates the production of alpha waves, which promote feelings of relaxation. It also plays a role in GABA production.
- Magnolia bark extract also boosts GABA and has been shown to promote better sleep and relaxation. In fact, research found that magnolia bark activates the same receptors in the brain as cannabinoids.
There’s still a lot to learn about medicinal marijuana. Maybe one day, federal restrictions will be relaxed so that more of this research can be done. Until then, be sure to do your own research if you think marijuana may help you in some way. But if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of using it—or if you aren’t able to legally access it due to your state’s laws—rest assured you can still achieve many of the same effects with a number of safe, readily available supplements.
 DISA. https://disa.com/map-of-marijuana-legality-by-state. Last accessed Feb. 21, 2019.
 Whiting P, et al. Cannabinoids for medicinal use: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2015 Jun 23-30;313(24):2456-73. Last accessed Feb. 22, 2019.
 Campbell G, et al. Effects of cannabis use in people with chronic non-cancer pain prescribed opiods: findings from a 4-year prospective cohort study. Lancet Public Health. 2018 Jul;3(7):e341-e350.
 Sarris J. et al. Kava in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. J Clin Psychopharmacol. 2013 Oct;33(5):643-8.
 Rempel V, et al. Magnolia extract, magnolol, and metabolites: Activation of cannabinoid CB2 receptors and blockade of the related GPR55. ACS Med Chem Lett. 2013 Jan 10;4(1):41-5.