Pros and Cons of Medical Marijuana

The debate over the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana is ongoing. While a number of states in the U.S. have active medical marijuana laws (and a growing number allow recreational use), the federal government continues to classify it as a Schedule I controlled substance. Not only does that make it illegal to possess, but it also limits medical studies into the potential benefits of cannabis.

With strong supporters on each side of the debate, the arguments for and against the legalization of marijuana are hot topics. What are the debated pros and cons of medical marijuana?

A gloved doctor filling a prescription for medical marijuana
LPETTET / Getty Images

The Pros

The legalization of marijuana for medical reasons is viewed favorably by many Americans, including members of the medical community and Congress. Some of the arguments for medical marijuana include:

  • Marijuana is effective in relieving nausea and vomiting. Studies have shown that pharmaceutical cannabis can decrease nausea caused by chemotherapy used to treat cancer and almost completely eliminate vomiting.
  • Marijuana can relieve the spasticity of the muscles that is sometimes associated with multiple sclerosis and paralysis.
  • Marijuana can help treat appetite loss associated with conditions such as HIV/AIDS and certain types of cancers.
  • Marijuana can relieve certain types of chronic pain, including neuropathic pain.
  • Marijuana is safer than some other medications prescribed to treat the same symptoms. For example, it may be used instead of opioids for pain management. Opioids are highly addictive and are typically not recommended for long-term use in treating chronic pain.
  • Cannabis does not need to be smoked to be medically beneficial. Products such as cannabidiol (CBD) oils, topical pain relief treatments, edibles, and other non-smoking applications are now available.
  • As research continues, more of the individual compounds in cannabis are being found to be beneficial. When isolated—such as CBD has been—these may lead to further advancements in medical treatment options without the "high" produced by the compound commonly known as THC.
  • Marijuana has been used for centuries as a natural medicinal agent to good effect.

The Cons

For every person who advocates for the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, there is another who argues against it. Some of the arguments from the opposition include:

  • Frequent marijuana use can seriously affect your short-term memory.
  • Frequent use can impair your cognitive ability.
  • Smoking anything, whether it's tobacco or marijuana, can seriously damage your lung tissue.
  • Smoked marijuana contains cancer-causing compounds.
  • Marijuana carries a risk of abuse and addiction.
  • Marijuana has been implicated in a high percentage of automobile crashes and workplace accidents.
  • Marijuana is illegal under federal law. It is classified as Schedule I drug in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), alongside heroin. This classification says that the substances have no currently accepted medicinal value.

Scientific Evidence Remains Limited

In the past, clinical trials to evaluate the effectiveness of marijuana to treat certain conditions have been restrictive and limited. As medical marijuana becomes more prevalent throughout the world, researchers are doing more studies.

However, expert reviews of current research continue to advocate that more studies are needed. Many of the hurdles involve controlling the quality and dosing of cannabis with what is legally available to researchers. Additionally, a number of the current studies are not controlled clinical trials in which a placebo or alternative medicine is used. Without more of these comparative studies, scientific evidence on the therapeutic effects of cannabis will remain in question.

Until marijuana is downgraded from a Schedule I drug, widespread clinical trials are unlikely to happen in the United States.

If we really want a definitive answer as to whether marijuana is valuable for symptom management, it needs to be evaluated using the same standards as other medications.

A Word From Verywell

Medical marijuana remains controversial but it is gaining traction as a legitimate recommendation for a variety of symptoms. Even though many states have legalized the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes (and a few for recreational use), it’s going to take more moves by policymakers and the U.S. government for it be accepted and sold nationwide. This will, however, likely require a much larger body of legitimate scientific research to prove or disprove the efficacy of medical marijuana, and potentially loosen the restrictions on its use.

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