What Is Medical Cannabis: A Basic Guide | cannabisMD

What Is Medical Cannabis: A Basic Guide for Beginners

A basic guide for beginners on what medical cannabis is

So, you want to find out more about medical cannabis? This basic guide will start you off on the right track. Image Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Medical cannabis, also known as medical marijuana, is a herbal drug that is derived from the cannabis plant with the intent of medical use. There are two forms of cannabis: sativa and indica. Both are used as medicine. The term cannabis is the plant genus but is often used interchangeably with marijuana. Marijuana, however, is the drug isolated from the plant’s leaves and flowers.

History of Medical Cannabis

Cannabis has a long history of accepted medical use as an pain reliever and to treat muscle spasms. However, for most of the modern era cannabis has been prohibited across the globe due to the public fear regarding the unregulated use of recreational marijuana.

In 2737 BC, Chinese Emperor Shen Nung is accredited with the discovery of the healing effects of the plant. It was not until the last century that our relationship with cannabis began to change. In spite of medical purposes the psychoactive ability of the plant was demonized. In 1942 cannabis was removed from the US Pharmacopeia causing cannabis to lose its claim as medicine. Since then, cannabis has grown in use and popularity. Studies have revealed time and time again that it has significant medicinal potential. The anecdotal evidence supporting this has grown steadily. However, people are still disputing that it has any medicinal value.

Discovery of Medicinal Value

In the 1960s the “grandfather of medical marijuana” Raphael Mechoulam, discovered the root of the psychoactive effects, a specific chemical compound, called cannabinoid. He named the cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In the late 80s and early 90s, his discoveries continued with the identification of the endocannabinoid system. He was able to identify the system and the primary cannabinoid receptors. The cannabinoid receptors were located in the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system respectively. The primary cannabinoid receptors were identified as CB1 and CB2. CB1 is largely in the central nervous system. CB2 is largely in the peripheral nervous system and immune system.

Mechoulam’s research revealed cannabis is able to provide relief for a range of medical conditions. As a result, medical cannabis is now legal in a growing number of states and countries. It is made available through accessible cannabis dispensaries. In the United States under the drug administration, the FDA, the National Institutes of Health, and general federal bodies there are still medical cannabis laws intended to prevent use.

These discoveries led to public and scientific interest in the medical potential of cannabis and its extracts. This interest has grown steadily ever since. While the legal system is definitely moving in the right direction, it isn’t doing it fast enough to meet public demand.


Δ⁹-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the main cannabinoids used for medical purposes. CBD is derived from hemp and occasionally marijuana. THC is derived from marijuana. There is only .3% THC in hemp and 30% in marijuana. CBD is also in much higher quantities in hemp than marijuana.

CBD is more often legal in a range of states and countries than THC. CBD sourced from the marijuana plant may still be illegal even if CBD from the hemp plant is legal. You should always check your local laws to assure you are not partaking in illegal activity.

THC interacts more with the CB1 receptor than the CB2 receptor. As you may recall, CB1 is located in the brain and spine largely and therefore we see a rise in dopamine. CBD does not bind to either cannabinoid receptor directly. Instead, it acts indirectly against cannabinoid agonists. However, CBD interacts with other receptors in our body, including 5-HT1A receptor, which is linked to serotonin. Dopamine is associated with addictive substances while serotonin is not. CBD has zero withdrawal symptoms and both have low toxicity.

Treatable Conditions

Placebo-controlled clinical trials have since suggested that medical cannabis can help to either treat of manage the symptoms of a variety of conditions. In the first decade of the 21st century, studies estimated that the prevalence of self-reported cannabis use among those with various conditions ranged from 30 to 50 percent (HIV/AIDS) to 10 percent (multiple sclerosis and epilepsy).

Medical Cannabis is used to treat many different conditions, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Appetite loss
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Mental health ailments
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Muscle spasms
  • Nausea
  • Chronic pain
  • Wasting syndrome (cachexia)
  • Severe acne
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Arthritis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  • And more

Side Effects of Medical Cannabis

Negative side effects are rare with medical cannabis use but even so, if you experience any of the following side effects, speak to your doctor immediately.

  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Panic attacks
  • Movement difficulty (ataxia)
  • Depersonalization
  • Fast heart beat
  • Dry eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Vomiting (very rare)
  • Cough
  • Dizziness
  • Psychosis

Studies are still in their infancy and, though medical cannabis is certainly very promising for a range of ailments, especially those with debilitating chronic symptoms, be sure to do your research on dosage, clinical trials, and legality. If you suffer from such a condition, medical cannabis could significantly improve your quality of life. But you can’t ignore the fact that this is a largely untested drug and there are always risks involved in adapting experimental treatments. Speak to a medical professional before using CBD or THC-based products for your medical condition to err on the side of caution.

Niamh Tumilty
Niamh Tumilty
Niamh Tumilty is a writer and multimedia producer for cannabisMD where she is constantly evaluating the continued growth of CBD and its presence in the news. Her research and writing on cannabis and CBD can be found at niamhtumilty.com.

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