Marinol or Marijuana for Medicinal Use

Marinol (dronabinol) is a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient of marijuana (cannabis). In addition to creating the "high" that many users seek, THC is known to reduce neuropathic pain, relieve nausea, and stimulate appetite. In states where marijuana is legal, people now have a choice as to whether Marinol or marijuana is the better drug to treat their medical condition. While there remains no clear consensus as to which is "better" or "worse," there are pros and cons that may help direct your decision.

Medical marijuana and pill bottle on a white background
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Marinol was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1985 to treat nausea and vomiting related to cancer chemotherapy. Its approval has since been extended to include the treatment of weight loss and anorexia in people with advanced HIV infection.

As a result of its benefits for people with HIV wasting, Marinol was rescheduled as a schedule III drug in 1999 (meaning that it has an accepted medical use). When used as prescribed, Marinol is considered safe and effective with a low risk of dependence.

Off-label uses include the alleviation of fibromyalgia pain, glaucoma-related eye pressure, menstrual migraines, postoperative nausea and vomiting, obstructive sleep apnea, and muscle spasticity related to multiple sclerosis (MS).

Current Evidence

As a regulated pharmaceutical drug, Marinol and other THC derivatives have undergone extensive clinical research to support their use. An extensive review of studies from the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research described the various benefits of Marinol in randomized trials.

Among the findings:

  • A 25-milligram (mg) dose of Marinol was more effective in achieving pain relief in people with MS compared to a placebo.
  • A 5-mg dose of Marinol prescribed to people with AIDS over six weeks was significantly more effective in stimulating appetite (38 percent versus 8 percent) than a placebo.
  • A 25-milligram (mg) dose of Marinol was more effective in reducing chronic neuropathic pain by 50 percent compared to a placebo (30 percent).

While the pain-relieving effects of a 10-mg dose of Marinol are comparable to a 60-mg dose of codeine, higher doses are associated with a greater risk of side effects compared to codeine (especially sedation).


There are several benefits to Marinol, some of which stem from the fact that it is an FDA-approved drug.

They include:

  • Marinol is legal in all 50 states and is regularly stocked in pharmacies.
  • Marinol is a pure isomer of THC, meaning that you won't be exposed to any potentially harmful chemicals found in marijuana.
  • Marinol has a long drug half-life and will usually remain at a therapeutic level in your blood for longer than marijuana.
  • Marinol is not smoked and is less likely to cause throat and lung irritation (an important consideration for someone with asthma or COPD).
  • Marinol is manufactured under controlled conditions, meaning that it is less likely to be tainted or contaminated.
  • Marinol is covered by most health insurance plans.


Like any drug, Marinol also has cons to consider:

  • Marinol has a low absorption rate and can take up to an hour before the effects are felt (an important consideration from someone undergoing chemotherapy).
  • Marinol may be more expensive than marijuana if your insurance doesn't cover it.
  • Studies have been conflicted as to how effective Marinol is at controlling neuropathic pain.

Marinol can affect people differently. Some may experience extreme drowsiness, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), and dry mouth even at the prescribed dose. Others may experience dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, feeling "high," an exaggerated sense of well-being, nausea, vomiting, and stomachache as the body adapts to the medication.

A healthcare provider should be notified if these side effects persist or worsen.


Marijuana is most commonly smoked but may also be added to food, ingested in tinctures and oils, or inhaled through vaporizers ("vaping"), and may be used topically on the skin.

Medical marijuana was first legalized in California in 1996 at the height of the HIV crisis. Today, all but three U.S. states and one inhabited territory have some form of legalization on their books. With that being said, as a schedule I drug, marijuana has only been officially decriminalized in a handful of states.

Current Evidence

While many of the touted benefits of smoked marijuana remain loosely supported, the evidence regarding its effectiveness in treating chronic nerve pain is perhaps the most robust.

This includes a series of randomized trials from the University of California Center San Diego, which showed that a single marijuana cigarette containing up to 8% THC was more effective in reducing nerve pain (46% to 52%) than placebo (18% to 24%).

Similarly, a 2012 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concluded that smoked marijuana delivered over the course of 11 days was as effective in reducing spasticity and even more effective in reducing pain in people with MS compared to a placebo.


Supporters of medical marijuana often cite these pros:

  • Smoked marijuana has a rapid onset of action, bringing almost an immediate relief of symptoms.
  • Smoked marijuana "doses" are easier to control than oral medications like Marinol.
  • There is a variety of cannabis strains to choose from, some of which have fewer psychoactive effects and may be more effective in stimulating appetite, fighting fatigue, or curbing depression or anxiety.
  • Smoked marijuana contains other potentially beneficial cannabinoids, as well as potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds (such as terpenes found in medicinal oils).
  • Marijuana is easy and inexpensive to grow.


There are, however, negatives to consider:

  • Marijuana is still considered illegal by the federal government.
  • There is no FDA-approved medical use of medical marijuana.
  • Medical marijuana is not covered by insurance.
  • Medical marijuana can be prohibitively expensive in some states, particularly those that only allow it for medical purposes.
  • Marijuana contains over 400 chemicals, little of which is known about their long-term effects.
  • Marijuana may interfere with your mental acuity and mood.
  • Smoked marijuana may not be appropriate for people with respiratory diseases, including lung cancer.
  • Outside of smoking, other methods of intake may have a more erratic in their effect.

Side effects of marijuana include a characteristic "high," dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, red eyes, dilated pupils, increased heart rate, increased appetite, euphoria, anxiety, restlessness, impaired coordination, and an altered perception of time and space. Symptoms are often dose-dependent, with higher doses sometimes triggering panic, paranoia, or hallucinations.

A Word From Verywell

Ultimately, the choice between Marinol and marijuana is largely dependent on your state laws. In some states, there may be no choice.

If you would like to explore medical marijuana use, start by checking the laws of your state on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) website. You should then speak with your healthcare provider about the benefits and consequences of each drug as they to apply to your condition and overall health. Try to keep an open mind but take extra care to avoid medical advice from non-medical sources.

It is also good to keep an eye on other THC products undergoing development, some of which may be appropriate to your needs. One such example is Sativex (nabiximols), a THC mouth spray currently undergoing phase III clinical trials in the United States. The spray has already been approved for use in the United Kingdom for the treatment of neuropathic pain, spasticity, overactive bladder, and other symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Health and Medicine Division; Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice; Committee on the Health Effects of Marijuana: An Evidence Review and Research Agenda. The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research. Therapeutic Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids. 2017.

  2. Levin FR, Mariani JJ, Brooks DJ, Pavlicova M, Cheng W, Nunes EV. Dronabinol for the treatment of cannabis dependence: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2011;116(1-3):142-50. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.12.010

  3. Grant I, Atkinson JH, Gouaux B, Wilsey B. Medical marijuana: clearing away the smoke. Open Neurol J. 2012;6:18-25. doi:10.2174/1874205X01206010018

  4. Häuser W, Fitzcharles MA, Radbruch L, Petzke F. Cannabinoids in Pain Management and Palliative Medicine. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2017;114(38):627-634. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2017.0627

  5. Ware MA, Wang T, Shapiro S, et al. Smoked cannabis for chronic neuropathic pain: a randomized controlled trial. CMAJ. 2010;182(14):E694-701. doi:10.1503/cmaj.091414

  6. Corey-bloom J, Wolfson T, Gamst A, et al. Smoked cannabis for spasticity in multiple sclerosis: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial. CMAJ. 2012;184(10):1143-50. doi:10.1503/cmaj.110837

Additional Reading
  • Correy-Bloom, J.; Wolfson, T.; Garnst, A. et al. Smoked cannabis for spasticity in multiple sclerosis: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial.CMAJ.2012;184(10):1143-50. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.110837.

  • Gordon, A.; Conley, J.; and Gordon, J. Medical consequences of marijuana use: a review of current literature.Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2013;15(12):419. DOI: 10.1007/s11920-013-0419-7.

  • Grant, I.; Atkinson, J.; Gouaux, B. Medical Marijuana: Clearing Away the Smoke. Open Neurol J. 2012;6:18-25. DOI:10.2174/1874205X01206010018.

  • Hauser, W.; Fitzcharles, M.; Radbruch, L. et al. Cannabinoids in Pain Management and Palliative Medicine: An Overview of Systematic Reviews and Prospective Observational Studies.Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2017;114(38):627-34. DOI:10.3238/arztebl.2017.0627.

  • Ware, M.; Wang, T.; Shapiro, S. et al. Smoked cannabis for chronic neuropathic pain: a randomized controlled trial.CMAJ.2010;182(14):e694-e701.DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.091414.

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.