The Myth of “Medical Marijuana”

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In the United States, medications must be FDA-approved. Marijuana is not.

More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but under federal law, marijuana remains illegal. So—is marijuana medicine? The short answer is NO. However, some of the chemicals found in marijuana have been developed into medications, and more medications may be on the way.

To understand why marijuana is not medicine, it helps to know how medications are approved in the United States.

The FDA Testing Process
All medicines in the United States must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA is the government agency that is responsible for making sure that medications are safe and effective AND that their likely benefits are greater than any possible harmful effects. This requires careful scientific testing. If a drug doesn’t meet FDA standards, it will not be approved and cannot be prescribed or sold as medicine in the United States.

Why Isn’t Marijuana an FDA-Approved Medication?
Marijuana comes from the plant Cannabis sativa. It contains more than 400 different chemicals—many with unknown effects—which differ from plant to plant. For something to be a medicine, it must have well-defined and measurable ingredients that are the same each time a person takes a dose. That means one pill has to have the same amount of medicine as the next. This way, a doctor can determine what dose to prescribe and how often a patient should take it.

Also, marijuana has harmful effects, especially when it is smoked, that must be considered. Smoking marijuana can cause a chronic cough and increased risk of bronchitis and other lung infections. It can also interfere with learning and memory, affect driving (especially if combined with alcohol), make some people anxious and paranoid, and can lead to addiction. 

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Why Do Some People and States Consider Marijuana to Be Medicine?
Some of the ingredients in marijuana, such as THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), have medicinal effects. And some people get relief from symptoms of their illnesses by smoking marijuana. However, using marijuana as medicine does not make it medicine.  It has not gone through the FDA approval process to show that its benefits outweigh its risks.

FDA-Approved Medications Made From THC
Although marijuana is not medicine, there are some medications that do contain THC. Marinol® is synthetic (i.e., human-made) THC made into a pill. It is FDA-approved to relieve nausea and vomiting in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. It is also used to reverse severe weight loss in patients with AIDS.

Another medication, Sativex®, is a mouth spray made from a combination of two ingredients from the marijuana plant (THC and cannabidiol). Sativex® has been approved in Canada and the United Kingdom to relieve cancer pain and symptoms of multiple sclerosis and is currently going through FDA testing in the United States.

New medications that act on the cannabinoid system (where the THC in marijuana acts) are being developed to treat a variety of symptoms, but with fewer side effects than smoked marijuana. Read “The Science of Marijuana” to learn more about THC and the cannabinoid system. 

For additional facts about marijuana and other drugs, visit

Important Resources
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