Happy Science Times Tuesday! Today’s stories include the departure of European Organization of Nuclear Research (CERN) Leader Rolf-Dieter Heuer, as well as a pretty interesting article about disappearing bat populations in North America (no really, it’s quite fascinating). But let’s talk about something more topical:
In today’s Science Times, Kira Peikoff discusses the use of marijuana in e-cigarettes and the various problems that need to be addressed as this trend gains popularity. Like countless other articles about marijuana usage, along the way she makes the vague statement that marijuana has been shown to be useful as a treatment for certain illnesses. Yes, we’ve all heard that marijuana is used for medical purposes, but to treat what? And how exactly does it work? Well, I’m here to answer all that.
First stop. Glaucoma. This is perhaps one of the most commonly heard reasons behind getting a marijuana prescription. Glaucoma is a disease in which the nerve that transmits visual information to the brain, the optic nerve, becomes damaged by increased pressure from the fluids found within the eye. So any treatment for this disease must decrease the fluid pressure within the eye. Well, marijuana can do that. The problem is that the effect only lasts for maybe 3-4 hours, which means you’ll need a LOT of marijuana to chronically lower your eye pressure. Which is probably not good for you, and likely the reason why many doctors don’t like it as a long-term treatment for Glaucoma. In fact, in 2012 the American Glaucoma Society published a position paper discrediting the use of marijuana for treating Glaucoma.
Our next stop is neurological disorders. Interestingly, there have been some clinical studies that show THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gets you “high”, can actually reduce pain and other symptoms in certain patients with multiple sclerosis or trauma, such as spinal cord injury. In addition, the second most abundant compound in marijuana, the non-psychoactive cannabidiol, shows a lot of promise for use in treating seizures. This is mainly because cannabidiol has been shown to prevent muscle contractions. That makes it a potentially powerful drug against a neurological disease characterized by frequent involuntarily muscle contractions. However, not all species that have been tested respond the same way to this drug, so further research is necessary before we can start putting this drug to market. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t like to fund projects that use marijuana, so this might take some time.
Our last stop brings us to AIDS and cancer. HIV/AIDS patients are known to experience severe appetite/weight loss in what has been coined as “HIV/AIDS wasting”. Indeed, marijuana has been clinically shown to increase appetite in patients with HIV/AIDS wasting. In fact, a synthetic oral form of THC was approved by the FDA in 1986 for such a use. Similarly, when cancer patients receive chemoterapy, it often causes severe nausea and vomiting, which you could probably guess leads to decreased appetite and weight loss. While there are already drugs out there that counteract these symptoms (known as antiemetics), THC has been shown to work better for some patients, especially those who don’t respond well to normal antiemetics. And in some cases, the combination of THC and antiemetics works way better than either one alone. So there actually might be a place for marijuana in easing the symptoms of HIV/AIDS wasting and chemotherapy.
Ultimately, there are definitely some good ways in which marijuana can be effectively used as a medical treatment. However, smoking marijuana is still smoking, and it’s just as bad for the body as cigarettes are. Furthermore, we have a long way to go in terms of research on using marijuana for medicinal purposes. Historically, the US government hasn’t been particularly interested in providing funding to marijuana studies. But times are changing and with recreational marijuana use now legal in more than one state, we may yet see increased government funding into marijuana research in the near future.