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Marijuana

Possession and/or use of marijuana is illegal under federal law in the United States. Medical marijuana is legal in some states. It (legalization of medical marijuana) appears to be a political football in this country. In other countries, medical marijuana (and recreational marijuana) might be perfectly legal.

Marijuana is a plant (like tobacco) that is smoked. It contains unique chemical compounds that affect brain function.

Efficacy

There are anecdotal and individual case reports that marijuana controls seizures in epileptics (reviewed in a 1997 British Medical Association report13), but there is no solid evidence. While there are no studies indicating that either marijuana or THC worsen seizures, there is no scientific basis to justify such studies.

In the only known case-controlled study that was designed to evaluate illicit drug use and the risk of first seizure, Ng and co-workers137 concluded that marijuana is a protective factor for first-time seizures in men but not women. Men who used marijuana reportedly had fewer first-time seizures than men who did not use marijuana. That report was based on a comparison of 308 patients who had been admitted to a hospital after their first seizure with a control group of 294 patients. The control group was made up of patients who had not had seizures and were admitted for emergency surgery, such as surgery for appendicitis, intestinal obstruction, or acute cholecystitis. Compared to men who did not use marijuana, the odds ratio of first seizure for men who had used marijuana within 90 days of hospital admission was 0.36 (95% confidence interval = 0.18—0.74). An odds ratio of less than one is consistent with the suggestion that marijuana users are less likely to have seizures. The results for women were not statistically significant. However, this was a weak study. It did not include measures of health status prior to hospital admissions for the patients' serious conditions, and differences in their health status might have influenced their drug use rather than--as suggested by the authors--that differences in their drug use influenced their health.

The potential antiepileptic activity of CBD has been investigated but is not promising. Three controlled trials were conducted in which CBD was given orally to patients who had had generalized grand mal seizures or focal seizures (Table 4.4). Two of these studies were never published, but information about one was published in a letter to the South African Medical Journal, and the other was presented at the 1990 Marijuana International Conference on Cannabis and Cannabinoids.184

Even if CBD had antiepileptic properties, these studies were likely too small to demonstrate efficacy. Proving efficacy of anticonvulsants generally requires large numbers of patients followed for months because the frequency of seizures is highly variable and the response to therapy varies depending on seizure type.4, 49

Therapy for Epilepsy

Future Therapy. The goal of epilepsy treatment is to halt the seizures with minimal or no side effects and then to eradicate the cause. Most of the anticonvulsant research on cannabinoids was conducted before 1986. Since then, many new anticonvulsants have been introduced and cannabinoid receptors have been discovered. At present, the only biological evidence of antiepileptic properties of cannabinoids is that CB1 receptors are abundant in the hippocampus and amygdala. Both regions are involved in partial seizures but are better known for their role in functions unrelated to seizures.26 Basic research might reveal stronger links between cannabinoids and seizure activity, but this is not likely to be as fruitful a subject of cannabinoid research as others. Given the present state of knowledge, clinical studies of cannabinoids in epileptics are not indicated.

In the absense of broad scale studies demonstrating a reliable effectiveness, marijuana scores a zero for the chart.

Potential Adverse Events

Effects on the Brain

...

The short-term effects of marijuana can include problems with memory and learning; distorted perception; difficulty in thinking and problem solving; loss of coordination; and increased heart rate. Research findings for long-term marijuana abuse indicate some changes in the brain similar to those seen after long-term abuse of other major drugs. For example, cannabinoid (THC or synthetic forms of THC) withdrawal in chronically exposed animals leads to an increase in the activation of the stress-response system and changes in the activity of nerve cells containing dopamine. Dopamine neurons are involved in the regulation of motivation and reward, and are directly or indirectly affected by all drugs of abuse.

Effects on the Heart

One study has indicated that an abuser's risk of heart attack more than quadruples in the first hour after smoking marijuana. The researchers suggest that such an effect might occur from marijuana's effects on blood pressure and heart rate and reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.

Effects on the Lungs

A study of 450 individuals found that people who smoke marijuana frequently but do not smoke tobacco have more health problems and miss more days of work than nonsmokers. Many of the extra sick days among the marijuana smokers in the study were for respiratory illnesses.

Even infrequent abuse can cause burning and stinging of the mouth and throat, often accompanied by a heavy cough. Someone who smokes marijuana regularly may have many of the same respiratory problems that tobacco smokers do, such as daily cough and phlegm production, more frequent acute chest illness, a heightened risk of lung infections, and a greater tendency to obstructed airways. Smoking marijuana possibly increases the likelihood of developing cancer of the head or neck. A study comparing 173 cancer patients and 176 healthy individuals produced evidence that marijuana smoking doubled or tripled the risk of these cancers.

Marijuana abuse also has the potential to promote cancer of the lungs and other parts of the respiratory tract because it contains irritants and carcinogens. In fact, marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70 percent more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than does tobacco smoke. It also induces high levels of an enzyme that converts certain hydrocarbons into their carcinogenic form—levels that may accelerate the changes that ultimately produce malignant cells. Marijuana users usually inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer than tobacco smokers do, which increases the lungs' exposure to carcinogenic smoke. These facts suggest that, puff for puff, smoking marijuana may be more harmful to the lungs than smoking tobacco.

Other Health Effects

Some of marijuana's adverse health effects may occur because THC impairs the immune system's ability to fight disease. In laboratory experiments that exposed animal and human cells to THC or other marijuana ingredients, the normal disease-preventing reactions of many of the key types of immune cells were inhibited. In other studies, mice exposed to THC or related substances were more likely than unexposed mice to develop bacterial infections and tumors.

Effects of Heavy Marijuana Use on Learning and Social Behavior

Research clearly demonstrates that marijuana has the potential to cause problems in daily life or make a person's existing problems worse. Depression, anxiety, and personality disturbances have been associated with chronic marijuana use. Because marijuana compromises the ability to learn and remember information, the more a person uses marijuana the more he or she is likely to fall behind in accumulating intellectual, job, or social skills. Moreover, research has shown that marijuana’s adverse impact on memory and learning can last for days or weeks after the acute effects of the drug wear off.

Students who smoke marijuana get lower grades and are less likely to graduate from high school, compared with their nonsmoking peers. A study of 129 college students found that, among those who smoked the drug at least 27 of the 30 days prior to being surveyed, critical skills related to attention, memory, and learning were significantly impaired, even after the students had not taken the drug for at least 24 hours. These "heavy" marijuana abusers had more trouble sustaining and shifting their attention and in registering, organizing, and using information than did the study participants who had abused marijuana no more than 3 of the previous 30 days. As a result, someone who smokes marijuana every day may be functioning at a reduced intellectual level all of the time.

More recently, the same researchers showed that the ability of a group of long-term heavy marijuana abusers to recall words from a list remained impaired for a week after quitting, but returned to normal within 4 weeks. Thus, some cognitive abilities may be restored in individuals who quit smoking marijuana, even after long-term heavy use.

Workers who smoke marijuana are more likely than their coworkers to have problems on the job. Several studies associate workers' marijuana smoking with increased absences, tardiness, accidents, workers' compensation claims, and job turnover. A study among postal workers found that employees who tested positive for marijuana on a pre-employment urine drug test had 55 percent more industrial accidents, 85 percent more injuries, and a 75-percent increase in absenteeism compared with those who tested negative for marijuana use. In another study, heavy marijuana abusers reported that the drug impaired several important measures of life achievement including cognitive abilities, career status, social life, and physical and mental health.

Effects of Exposure During Pregnancy

Research has shown that some babies born to women who abused marijuana during their pregnancies display altered responses to visual stimuli, increased tremulousness, and a high-pitched cry, which may indicate neurological problems in development. During the preschool years, marijuana-exposed children have been observed to perform tasks involving sustained attention and memory more poorly than nonexposed children do. In the school years, these children are more likely to exhibit deficits in problem-solving skills, memory, and the ability to remain attentive.

Addictive Potential

Long-term marijuana abuse can lead to addiction for some people; that is, they abuse the drug compulsively even though it interferes with family, school, work, and recreational activities. Drug craving and withdrawal symptoms can make it hard for long-term marijuana smokers to stop abusing the drug. People trying to quit report irritability, sleeplessness, and anxiety. They also display increased aggression on psychological tests, peaking approximately one week after the last use of the drug.

Genetic Vulnerability

Scientists have found that whether an individual has positive or negative sensations after smoking marijuana can be influenced by heredity. A 1997 study demonstrated that identical male twins were more likely than nonidentical male twins to report similar responses to marijuana abuse, indicating a genetic basis for their response to the drug. (Identical twins share all of their genes.)

It also was discovered that the twins' shared or family environment before age 18 had no detectable influence on their response to marijuana. Certain environmental factors, however, such as the availability of marijuana, expectations about how the drug would affect them, the influence of friends and social contacts, and other factors that differentiate experiences of identical twins were found to have an important effect.

I scored marijuana as a 4 for the chart due to expected adverse events.

Cost

This varies depending upon your location (and how legal it is or isn't). I scored it a 5 for the chart based upon a presumed expense on the black market (it could get really expensive if you get arrested).

Type

This is a treatment that offers only temporary relief (according to reports where it works). It requires continuous active participation.

Latency

Seizure control is said to occur more or less instantly upon smoking.

Return to the chart of alternative epilepsy treatments.

This page last modified September 26, 2011.

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