Medicinal Marijuana: How it Works and its Benefits and Risks

The use of marijuana, or cannabis sativa, along with other drugs like opioids is a widely debated and controversial topic around the US and all over the world. While some states have allowed it to be used recreationally, others have completely banned it; both for recreation and for medicinal use. Cannabis has been used for medical purposes for thousands of years (or more), but how does it work? Does medicinal marijuana have more pros or cons? Is it safe?

THC (delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol), a common type of marijuana, works by binding to cannabinoid receptors on neurons in the brain, similar to naturally occurring chemicals. However, THC is much more stronger than these chemicals and will last for a longer time and activate pathways that lead to the “high” people feel and cause several side effects. In medical uses, THC is used more for chronic and severe pain. It can relieve nausea in patients going through chemotherapy and stimulate appetite in patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS. It can reduce muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis and can improve sleep in people with insomnia.

On the other hand, CBD (cannabidiol), which comes from a type of marijuana plant called hemp, does not directly bind to the cannabinoid receptors THC binds to and instead indirectly interacts with the endocannabinoid system. For medical purposes, CBD can be used to reduce anxiety and depression, help people with epilepsy, reduce inflammation for people with arthritis, and can help with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Though there are many benefits to marijuana, there are also several side effects that can be harmful, most of which are more associated with THC than CBD. Smoking marijuana causes inflammation in a person’s airways and can cause more tar in the body than smoking tobacco can. It can also lead to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is damaging to the lungs. Marijuana also can lead to liver damage, especially when used at the same time as alcohol. THC can also weaken the immune system, both in the short-term and in the long-term. While CBD is generally more tolerated and is non-addicting, some common side effects are a dry mouth, fatigue, and diarrhea.

In 2018, Congress passed the Agricultural Improvement Act, which made hemp legal as long as it contains less than 0.3% THC. However states in the US have their own laws on CBD and THC, as well as how regulated they are for medicinal and recreational uses. Below is a map of the legality of cannabis in each state from the CDC.

So, while marijuana can be helpful for patients suffering from destructive conditions, it can also end up being very harmful for someone’s mind and body. Although CBD is usually safer to use than THC, all types of marijuana can damage a person’s body.


“Cannabis Frequently Asked Questions.” Cannabis and Public Health, 21 May 2024, Accessed 10 June 2024.

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