Medicinal Uses of Cannabis

Since time immemorial, humans have used cannabis for recreational and medicinal purposes (Vaney et al., 2004; Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012). Traces of hashish (a purer form of cannabis) have been found in Egyptian mummies (Balabanova, Parsche, & Pirsig, 1992)! 19th century Europe saw the use of cannabis for treating conditions like pain, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, asthma, sleep disorders and spasticity.

Even today, cannabis remains one of the most widely used drugs in the world (Sharma, Murthy, & Bharath, 2012). Although considered safe and used for recreational-medicinal purposes in some countries, cannabis is still thought to be health risk by much of the scientific community; it has a potential to cause physical dependence and subsequent development of psychiatric disorders, they say.

Other researchers, however, hold a different view; they consider cannabis to be a potential therapeutic agent (Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012; Hagenbach et al., 2007; Grotenhermen, 1998). In some parts of the world, cannabinoids are prescribed to patients in whom conventional treatment fails to afford relief; for instance, in cases of pain, nausea, vomiting and spastic rigidity (Wade, Makela, House, Bateman, & Robson, 2006).

In 2011, Germany became the first country to sanction cannabis-based medicines for clinical use – for treating mild to severe refractory spasticity in multiple sclerosis (MS) (Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012).

Acute Effects of Cannabis Use

Cannabis causes a feeling of well-being and relaxation. This increased feeling of well-being, however, can easily translate into anxiety and panic attacks.

Decreased cognitive function, reduced psychomotor skills and an altered perception of passage of time are some of the reported side-effects of acute use of cannabis.

Since long-term consumption of higher concentrations of cannabis has been shown to impair cognitive functioning (Pooyania, Ethans, Szturm, Casey, & Perry, 2010), the debate surrounding the justification of clinical use of cannabis rages on.

Therapeutic Potential of Cannabis

Cannabis and cannabinoids (marijuana, hashish, bhang and ganja) are derived from the Indian herb, Cannabis sativa; synthetic cannabinoids preparations are also now available (Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012). Active ingredients of cannabis are chemically related to tetrahydrocannabinol and act on the cannabinoid receptors.

Clinically, cannabis has

  • analgesic (pain-relieving)
  • antispastic (reducing rigidity associated with spasticity)
  • antiemetic (preventing vomiting) and
  • anti-inflammatory actions

Also, cannabis is neuroprotective and has been shown to protect against psychiatric disorders (as opposed to popular belief).

Licensed Use of Cannabis Extract

Several countries have allowed the clinical use of cannabinoids:

• Germany – for treating refractory spasticity associated with MS

• USA – as Dronabinol for treatment of nausea and vomiting associated with cytostatic therapy

• USA – as Dronabinol for improving appetite in AIDS-related weight loss

• UK – as Nabilone for suppressing side-effects of cancer chemotherapy

Randomized clinical trials have shown the potential use of cannabinoids in some other conditions as well (Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012):

  • bladder dysfunction associated with MS
  • tics associated with Tourette Syndrome
  • dyskinesia associated with Parkinson’s disease
  • rheumatism and fibromyalgia

To conclude, although branded an ‘illicit drug’, cannabis does seem to hold a lot of potential as a therapeutic agent. Further research, however, is warranted to ascertain the dosages for safe use in medicinal as well as recreational settings.

Reference List

Balabanova, S., Parsche, F., & Pirsig, W. (1992). First identification of drugs in Egyptian mummies. Naturwissenschaften, 79, 358.

Grotenhermen, F. (1998). Therapeutic use of cannabis. Lancet, 351, 758-759.

Grotenhermen, F. & Muller-Vahl, K. (2012). The therapeutic potential of cannabis and cannabinoids. Dtsch.Arztebl.Int, 109, 495-501.

Hagenbach, U., Luz, S., Ghafoor, N., Berger, J. M., Grotenhermen, F., Brenneisen, R. et al. (2007). The treatment of spasticity with Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol in persons with spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord., 45, 551-562.

Pooyania, S., Ethans, K., Szturm, T., Casey, A., & Perry, D. (2010). A randomized, double-blinded, crossover pilot study assessing the effect of nabilone on spasticity in persons with spinal cord injury. Arch.Phys.Med Rehabil., 91, 703-707.

Sharma, P., Murthy, P., & Bharath, M. M. (2012). Chemistry, metabolism, and toxicology of cannabis: clinical implications. Iran J Psychiatry, 7, 149-156.

Vaney, C., Heinzel-Gutenbrunner, M., Jobin, P., Tschopp, F., Gattlen, B., Hagen, U. et al. (2004). Efficacy, safety and tolerability of an orally administered cannabis extract in the treatment of spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Mult.Scler., 10, 417-424.

Wade, D. T., Makela, P. M., House, H., Bateman, C., & Robson, P. (2006). Long-term use of a cannabis-based medicine in the treatment of spasticity and other symptoms in multiple sclerosis. Mult.Scler., 12, 639-645.

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Dr. Deepak S Hiwale

Dr. Deepak S Hiwale, a.k.a "The Fitness Doc" specializes in sports medicine in addition to being an elite personal trainer. He currently runs an elite personal training company in West London. As a sports injury and fitness writer-presenter, he tries to disseminate as much knowledge as possible for the benefit of all. MBBS (University of Pune); MSC, Sports and Exercise Medicine (University of Glasgow); Diploma in Personal Training (YMCA Dip. PT, London).

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