Puff or Pass? Medical Marijuana and Chronic Illness

A joint, leaves of medical marijuana plant, and Colorado-issued medical marijuana cardThe earliest written reference to marijuana exists in Chinese writings dating back to 2737 B.C. that describe cannabis’ use as a medication for rheumatism, gout, and malaria. The Spanish brought marijuana to the New World in 1545, and it became a commercial crop, along with tobacco, by 1611. Marijuana is made from the dried leaves and buds of the cannabis sativa plant. The leaves, flowers, and other parts of the plant are prepared by drying and shredding. It can be smoked, inhaled, or ingested in food or tea. Medical marijuana is available as pills, topical cream, or oil.

Today, marijuana—also known by pot, weed, and any number of other names—has long been associated with “hippies,” ne’er do wells, and other stereotyped individuals. But marijuana isn’t just for hippies. In fact, it is widely used for both recreational and medicinal purposes.

The Legality of Marijuana Use

Legalized marijuana use for recreation and medicinal purposes is a hot topic in the United States at the moment. While both medical marijuana and recreational marijuana are legal in some states, the substance remains a “Schedule I drug” under federal law, making it illegal on the federal level, regardless of state law. This discrepancy between state and federal laws means a person can still be arrested and charged with possession even in states where marijuana use is legal.

Each state that has legalized medical marijuana has its own set of rules for “approved conditions” and “denied conditions.” In Colorado, for instance, cancer, glaucoma and HIV/AIDS are approved conditions for medical marijuana use. Conditions that cause cachexia (wasting syndrome), persistent muscle spasms, seizures, severe nausea, or severe pain are also on the approved list. The longer list of conditions that are not approved in Colorado for medical marijuana use include bipolar, posttraumatic stress, and clinical depression.

Each state with legalized medical marijuana has its own list of qualifying conditions, and these lists are likely to vary between states. These lists can be obtained easily online or from one’s health care provider. When a person has an approved debilitating condition qualifying them for medical marijuana use, and cannabis is legal in their state, they must obtain a medical card to purchase medical marijuana. With the recommendation of a local physician, a qualified individual can obtain a medical marijuana card in order to purchase products specifically designed for medical use.

Does Marijuana Offer Mental Health Benefits?

While research is still being conducted, most recent available research shows marijuana may be helpful in the treatment of certain mental health conditions, such as social anxiety and posttraumatic stress, but may not be as helpful as a form of treatment for other conditions, such as bipolar.

Research also indicates marijuana may show promise as one approach to treatment for individuals who are attempting to overcome addiction to opioids. Marijuana is never recommended as a replacement for therapy or counseling.

Pros and Cons to Consider

Some people, when faced with conflicting evidence, may struggle to decide if medical marijuana is right for them. As I am not a medical doctor, I cannot recommend any kind of medical treatment. I can, however, point out some pros and cons of medical marijuana use in the treatment of chronic medical conditions, based on research, and these points can be further discussed with your health care providers.

Research-based pros of medical marijuana use:

  • Marijuana has been used for centuries as a medicinal agent.
  • Cannabis can relieve the rigidity or tension of the muscles sometimes associated with multiple sclerosis and paralysis.
  • Marijuana can help treat the nausea and loss of appetite often experienced by those who have HIV/AIDS or cancer or who are receiving chemotherapy.
  • Marijuana can be effective at easing nausea and vomiting that accompanies other severe or debilitating conditions.
  • Cannabis can relieve pain and can reduce the likelihood of opioid addiction in those coping with chronic pain.

Research-based cons of medical marijuana:

  • Abuse and addiction occur in about 10% of users who start before age 25.
  • Frequent marijuana use can affect concentration and memory.
  • Smoking of any kind may cause breathing problems and damage to lung tissue (though some studies show smoking marijuana does not increase the risk of lung disease).
  • Frequent use can impair cognitive ability or cause temporary symptoms of psychosis.
  • Marijuana use has been positively correlated with alcohol and cigarette use and the use of other illegal drugs.
  • Cannabis use has been implicated in a high percentage of automobile crashes and workplace accidents.

Although a number of states have legalized both recreational and medical marijuana, and many others have legalized medical marijuana, clear and divisive camps exist in support of and against the use of marijuana in the treatment of medical and mental health conditions. This debate is likely to continue for years to come.

As with any medication or complementary and alternative treatment, there are potential factors that should be considered before choosing to implement the use of medical marijuana in the treatment of a chronic condition. Be sure to educate yourself with clinical, research-based evidence if you are considering this form of treatment. It is also a good idea to discuss all risks and benefits with your health care provider prior to using medical marijuana.

If you are considering the use of marijuana as a complementary treatment for a mental health concern, it is best to first discuss this with your therapist or counselor.


  1. Colorado Department of Health and Environment. (n.d.). Debilitating conditions for medical marijuana use. Retrieved from https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/MMR%20Qualifying%20Medical%20Conditions.pdf
  2. History of marijuana. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.narconon.org/drug-information/marijuana-history.html
  3. Medical marijuana. (2016, October 14). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/medical-marijuana/art-20137855
  4. Medical marijuana: Qualifying conditions. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/Marijuana/MedicalMarijuana/PatientInformation/QualifyingConditions
  5. Morrow, Angela. (2017, March 29). What are the pros and cons of medical marijuana? The debate over the legalization of marijuana use. VeryWell. Retrieved from https://www.verywell.com/what-are-the-pros-and-cons-of-medical-marijuana-1132484
  6. Qualifying conditions for a medical marijuana card by state. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.leafly.com/news/health/qualifying-conditions-for-medical-marijuana-by-state
  7. Sifferlin, A. (2016, November 16). Marijuana appears to benefit mental health: Study. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4573129/marijuana-cannabis-mental-health

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Mara

    May 8th, 2017 at 7:48 AM

    I really don’t have a problem for people using for medicinal purposes. I think that the medical benefits have been proven and that there are many chronically ill patients who could benefit from its usage. I do have a problem with using for recreational purposes. I am still convinced that some sort of addiction an form and really, don’t we have enough of that already in the country? I just think that with addictions spiraling out of control anyway, why take a chance in adding something else to the mix?

  • Andrea Risi

    May 9th, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    Agreed Mara! There are definitely pros and cons to medicinal marijuana use. It’s always advised to have clinical supervision while using this form of treatment to ensure proper use.

  • Michael

    May 8th, 2017 at 11:25 AM

    I have never once in my life done something like smoked weed and then done something stupid like get behind the wheel of a car. People who are high don’t do that.
    People who are drunk do do that and alcohol is the legal substance?

  • Andrea Risi

    May 9th, 2017 at 7:45 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Michael! Many people use marijuana responsibly.

  • BB

    May 12th, 2017 at 12:54 PM

    My father in law could have used marijuana medicinally when he had cancer but he absolutely refused. Even though doctors assured him that this could be a real turning point for him increase appetite and decrease nausea there was something in him, very old fashioned, that would never accept that this could be a legitimate medical treatment for him.

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