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For anyone following developments in healthcare, it’s hard to ignore the debate around medical marijuana. But, is medical marijuana all good? It’s true that the therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana to treat functional improvements for autism and severe pain conditions cannot be negated. At the same time, we need to remember that marijuana is not a drug that has absolutely no downsides. Let’s look at the pros and cons of medical marijuana from both the Western and Ayurvedic point of views.
Marijuana is the name given to the dried buds and leaves of Cannabis sativa plant varieties, which grow wild in warm dry climates around the globe. Marijuana is commonly known as weed, grass, pot, herb, green, cannabis, hemp, hash, and ganja, among others.
Cannabis is an herb that has been used in traditional, ancient medicine for thousands of years, dating back as far as 2637 B.C. in China. Its first known direct reference was found in China in the writings of the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung. While the first use of cannabis product was used for psychoactive agents, the focus was mainly on its power as a medication for rheumatism, gout, malaria, and funny enough, for absent-mindedness. What’s important to note is that ancient Chinese medicine focused more on the medicinal value of the plant, rather than the intoxication properties we have now come to associate it with.
Cannabis also finds reference in the ancient Ayurvedic texts of India in the works of Dhanvantari, one of the chief founders of Ayurveda and the legendary patron God of Physicians. However, cannabis is not an important herb in Ayurveda. It is a minor herb often found as one among several components (in very small quantities) in various medicinal preparations. Nowhere in Ayurveda is Cannabis used independently as an isolated herb. Ayurveda is a medical system that has been used and refined over thousands of years, so the fact that it does not use marijuana extensively, even for pain, should raise the first red flag.
In the medical use of marijuana, two types of cannabinoids found naturally in the resin of the marijuana plant are used. These are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
THC is the main psychoactive component of the marijuana plant. In other words, THC is the primary agent responsible for creating the “high” feeling associated with marijuana use. THC, in its purest form, is classified as an illegal drug with considerable immediate and long-term cognitive side effects, including impaired thinking and reasoning, reduced ability to plan and organize, altered decision-making, and reduced control over impulses.
However, synthetically-produced THC is used in several FDA-approved medications like dronabinol (Marinol capsules, Syndros liquid) and nabilone (Cesamet) for treating:
CBD has the same chemical formula as THC, but lacks the harmful cognitive effects of THC. The chemical composition of CBD is slightly altered to reduce the psychoactive effect associated with THC.
CBD accounts for up to 40 percent of cannabis extract, is found in plentiful in the natural plant and doesn’t produce a “high” effect, make it a better candidate for medical applications.
CBD is widely used in modern medicine for:
CBD counteracts the psychoactive effects of THC, both in plant form and when administered from its extract. Overall, the lower health risks of CBD, combined with its efficacy, make it a better candidate for medical applications than THC.
In various studies, medical use of marijuana has shown potential in helping control spontaneous seizures in epilepsy, easing the pain of multiple sclerosis and also helping patients sleep better, helping with symptoms of autism, and easing tremors in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Medical marijuana can also help children with hyperactivity issues, people with chemotherapy-related nausea and patients with chronic pain who may otherwise need to depend on more harmful pain-relieving opioids.
Dr. Allan Frankel, a board-certified internist in California has successfully used medical marijuana to treat tumors in patients. He used no other therapy besides prescribing 40-60mg of cannabinoids a day and saw tumors disappear after regular use. Some other medical ailments that respond particularly well to treatment using medical marijuana include:
Ayurveda believes that cannabis, when used by itself, can be toxic to the body and mind. However, when cannabis is prepared in a synergistic formula with other herbs under the supervision of experts, it can aid digestion.
Ayurvedic preparations are usually a combination of more than one herb. According to the philosophy of Ayurveda, not all herbs and plants are entirely beneficial and they can have some negative effects too. However, their negative effects are nullified when they are used in combination with other herbs. Cannabis is a classic example of a herb having medical use in some cases and having the ability to cause side effects in other cases.
Ayurveda believes that “a medicine properly used can become nectar and when improperly used can become poison.”
Which is why, even though cannabis is harmful, it shows positive effects in Ayurvedic preparations when used in combination with other herbs and spices. In the U.S, Marijuana is available either as an herb or in a purified form of one of its key components. When marijuana is not used in a way it is prescribed, Ayurveda believes that it can cause imbalances, side effects and serious health complications, including irreparable damage to the brain.
Research has shown that long-term use of cannabis has an irreversible negative effect on the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex. This area is the site of “intellect.” It is the area that participates in executive control and decision making. THC, the active compound in Cannabis, disrupts prefrontal cortical function. In adolescents, THC adversely affects experience-dependent maturation of the prefrontal area of the brain. Without this kind of maturation, adolescents find it extremely difficult to face real-life situations when they grow up into adults.
Our nervous and immune systems contain naturally-occurring chemicals called endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids act on various cells by attaching to special receptors called endocannabinoid receptors. Together, these two make up the endocannabinoid system. This system is important in a variety of critical brain processes like appetite, mood, pain sensation and memory. The system is delicate and complicated. When you inhale marijuana smoke or consume THC (through a tablet), you are introducing a potent, artificial influence that overwhelms the cannabinoid receptors and disrupts normal mental behavior.
So while marijuana may provide short-term relief from a particular health problem, it could also do more damage by disrupting the precise workings of the natural endocannabinoid system.
Ayurveda classifies Marijuana as an addictive drug. So whether you are using it for recreational purposes or medical purposes (under strict supervision and care), there is always a risk of you becoming addicted to it. However, some people argue that the pure CBD strains of marijuana carry no addiction risks and there could be merit to this argument. Since there does not seem to be a clear distinction made in Ayurveda by way of marijuana strains, we’re unable to comment on this.
To conclude, it is true that marijuana when used medically is a less-harmful alternative to pain relievers such as opioids. However, the benefits of pot may be overstated by advocates of marijuana legalization. Before we call it the panacea to all ills, we may need more studies that look closer at the cost-benefit ratio of Cannabis use.
Marijuana has been known for centuries by ancient civilizations and has been part of traditional medicine. Ayurveda advises us to use marijuana with caution and that too, only in combination with other balancing herbs.
While data on the positive effects of CBD without the side effects of THC are piling up, more rigorous studies may be needed to evaluate the performance of this compound, given what traditional medical systems have to say about it.