Medicinal marijuana - what's the deal?

There has been a lot of controversy in the media surrounding the legalization of medicinal marijuana, or cannabis. Many voices in the media are strongly opposed to the drug, citing the frequent recreational use. They question whether the legalization and thus easier accessibility of a ‘soft’ drug is beneficial to society and those who use it. Conversely, a growing number of people are noting the positive benefits that can be reaped by the use of the drug.

For the first time, the Hemp Health and Innovation expo was held in May this year. The event brought in thousands of visitors across Australia where they flocked to the Rose Hill Gardens Centre in Sydney to learn about the different uses of the hemp plant, including some of its medical advances.

This event was sponsored by organizations such as the Medicinal Cannabis Clinic Australia, Epilepsy Action Australia and the NSW government. The ‘United in Compassion’ Medicinal Cannabis Symposium, which was held in conjunction to the Hemp Health & Innovation Expo, was opened by NSW premier Mike Baird, and featured speakers from around the world.

Talking to a stall operator from the event, it is clear the passion that people have for the cause. Many pro-medicinal cannabis groups want to help a loved one by easing their chronic pain, or treat a young child who suffers from one of the 20% of epilepsy that cannot be treated by normal drugs, and just wants their child to be comfortable and healthy. For those afflicted with these conditions, it can be a long-awaited answer.

On the flip side, studies of the effects of recreational marijuana use show that to a small percentage, marijuana can be addictive just like any other drug. It can affect the cognitive ability to learn and concentrate, as well as memory. Not only this, but the marijuana circulating at the moment is stronger than that of the past; therefore giving a greater high, but also greater side effects.

It can be considered as driving ‘impaired’ or under the influence as studies show that those that test positive for marijuana are more than twice as likely as others to be involved in an accident. With research still continuing in this field, many just consider marijuana as another societal issue, where the cost of damage is often higher than the amount that can be taxed, similar to alcohol or smoking.

Australia, as well as several states of America, have slowly taken steps towards implementing medicinal marijuana as a viable option for those of whom nothing else seems to work. While recreational marijuana is illegal in all Australian states, the Victorian State Government has legalized the use of medicinal marijuana, particularly for children with severe epilepsy.


So with all this debate surrounding medicinal cannabis, what even is it?

What a lot of people don’t realize, is there are different types of cannabis. Advocates for the drug note the difference between medicinal cannabis and the recreational version themselves. In the recreational marijuana, there are typically higher levels of the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which creates the euphoria of a high. Despite being psychoactive, as in having the ability to get someone high, it can still be used for those with chronic pain or patients undergoing palliative care. For medicinal purposes, other types of cannabis can be used that have low levels of THC and generally higher levels of Cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive chemical, which is important to consider for the administration to children. This cannabis rich in CBD has been studied as a treatment for schizophrenia and rare types of epilepsy.

For the special types of illnesses medicinal marijuana can treat, it has fairly few side-effects. In one study of cannabis as a treatment for epilepsy, less than half of the 27 participant’s encountered feelings of drowsiness and 26% were fatigued. 16% of the people had diarrhoea, and there was mixed feelings of increased appetite (11%) and loss of appetite (10%). This study clearly had mixed results and would require a wider study group, but also shows the variety of reactions that individuals can have from the use of marijuana. Besides these comparatively small responses, there were no other serious side-effects noted.


Where is study into marijuana leading?

Currently, the University of Sydney is researching into the effectiveness of marijuana on some forms of childhood epilepsy under the PELICAN program (Paediatric Epilepsy [Lambert Initiative] Cannabinoid Analysis). On a global scale, pharmaceutical companies are researching further into the positive repercussions cannabis or the chemicals within cannabis can have on conditions such as treatment-resistant epilepsy, schizophrenia, cancer pain, chronic pain, brain cancer, ulcerative colitis, Type 2 diabetes, and adult epilepsy.


The subject of marijuana is complex and difficult to pin, as there are still many studies happening at the moment and as each new piece is brought to life, opinions can change very quickly on the topic. It is important to note the difference between recreational marijuana and medicinal marijuana, and that the legalization of one does not necessarily precipitate the legalization of the other - but it can certainly influence the conduct towards the other.

I guess the question is; where do you stand on the debate?


By Cassandra Haywood