We would like to get straight to the point and say “medicine”, plain and simple. However, we’re trying to be at least somewhat fair and balanced here, and give you an idea as to why people may be inclined to say “drug” or “both”. Also, we’re willing to say “medicine” at the moment, if definitive, peer-reviewed, unbiased evidence comes to light stating without a doubt that marijuana is a “drug” that deserves to be in the same class as opiates, alcohol and tobacco, we are willing to change our minds.
So, let’s look at the claims separately, outlining their reasons …
“Marijuana is a Drug”
A pretty standard approach, and one that’s supported federally. Though many states throughout the United States have legalised marijuana for medical and recreational use, marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 drug according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). This means that, according to the DEA, marijuana:
- Has a high potential for abuse
- Has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.
- Cannot be properly administered or used safely under medical supervision
This puts marijuana in the same class as heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and MDMA/ecstasy (methylenedioxymethamphetamine). This also means that people can be prosecuted federally for marijuana possession and cultivation, even if their state laws allow it. (To digress a little, this is why we don’t recommend carrying marijuana on a plane, even between two states that have legalized use.)
For better or for worse, there are many people the world over who believe marijuana is a drug, regardless of whether or not they want its consumption legalized. Now, many people will see this view as short -sighted and disagree (we agree with this assessment), but there might be good (and bad) reasons why they still believe marijuana to be a drug in the strictest sense.
- Seeing people using marijuana in conjunction with other drugs (and often claiming that this was the “first” or “gateway” drug).
- The lifestyle – they see friends of theirs who ended up “doing nothing all day” after using marijuana, or in some cases develop mental health problems.
- In places where marijuana is illegal, street dealers will treat marijuana no differently from, say, cocaine – it’s a product people will pay for, and when it’s illegal it is profitable for the black market to sell.
- The psychoactive effects of marijuana, particularly THC – medicine shouldn’t be mind-altering wherever possible.
Whilst some of these concerns are reasonable, we would like to debunk them to a greater or lesser extent:
- If you tell people that marijuana is comparable to heroin, then those same people try marijuana and learn that “Reefer Madness” is a myth, they might well think that the stories behind other Schedule 1 drugs are not true. Miseducation becomes the norm.
- The Gateway theory is problematic at best, and extremely damaging at worst. Why? For this one simple reason: marijuana is the only substance treated by mental health professionals the world over as a “gateway drug”. Alcohol and tobacco are never listed as “gateway drugs”, even if addicts to other substances started using them first. Also, one does not need to go to too many parties in order to observe that alcohol makes one far more suggestible to erratic behaviour and questionable decisions compared to someone who is using marijuana exclusively. Perhaps the best indicators of substance abuse are these three questions: were their parents violent or abusive? Were they addicts themselves? Did the person start using alcohol from a young age? Curiously, marijuana is singled out as a gateway to addiction, and other factors are either sidelined or considered “unimportant”.
- Those who say they saw their friends using marijuana and “doing nothing” is a good example of confirmation bias. Counting engineers, programmers, scientists, athletes and many other successful people who use marijuana is still an alien concept, or they’re not seen and heard from at all because they don’t talk about their usage. Also, many people who use marijuana heavily in their youth are liable to stopping several years later, when jobs, families and grown up life start taking precedent (the “I Was at College” effect).
- There is no evidence that marijuana is a cause of mental health problems. Again, marijuana is treated differently from other substances like alcohol.
- Putting anything on the black market that really ought not to be is generally a pretty bad idea. The lessons of alcohol prohibition still haven’t been learnt.
- Many medications are mind-altering. Antipsychotics, painkillers, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, anti-obsessives, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants are all commonly prescribed, and in some cases are far stronger substances than marijuana. Yet, people hardly see these prescribed substances as “drugs”, even if they are.
- Even some “hard” substances can have some medical applications. Opiates and opioids have use as painkillers (even if we think their use can be replaced or reduced with marijuana). LSD and psilocybin may well reduce the occurrence of cluster headaches. Amphetamines like Adderall helps those with ADHD focus. Slap a label by a pharmaceutical company on what is effectively methadone or speed, and it becomes “medicine”. Why?
Marijuana is Both a Drug and Medicine
This is possibly the most common position amongst those who want marijuana legalized. People in this camp are likely to believe in a distinction between “recreational” and “medical use”. They may also believe that marijuana is “crutch”, like any other substance.
Basically, if you have a condition confirmed by a doctor, and that condition has scientific evidence backing that symptoms can be alleviated by marijuana use (e.g. cancer, MS, epilepsy, depression, anxiety), then you are using marijuana medically. Those who have no underlying conditions and use marijuana as a means of “enjoyment” or “social lubricant” are said to be using marijuana “recreationally”. Such users may not use marijuana very often, only use it socially, or treat it in a similar way to a bottle of wine (i.e. as a way to “relax and unwind”).
One can be somewhat sympathetic with this view, particularly when looking at pure THC extracts, which it could be argued are used almost purely for their psychoactive effects. Those who neglect all the other cannabinoids and chase the THC could indeed be using marijuana for recreation.
However, this view has its problems as well. Splitting up medical and recreational users is a little arbitrary, and many of those who use marijuana “recreationally” may well be medicating an undiagnosed health problem. Those who use marijuana to destress and get rid of anxiety could also be using marijuana “medically”, especially if they’re using it to replace alcohol, antidepressants and stimulants. Should marijuana be used as a “crutch”, perhaps it is a better, less addictive and less harmful crutch than many legal substances – so what if it’s being used as a crutch?
Also, even if a user is consuming marijuana for the THC and the “high”, they are still consuming other cannabinoids and terpenes doing great things for their health. CBD, CBN, CBG, myrcene, linalool … The list of medically beneficial cannabinoids and terpenes found in cannabis are all helping the user, even if they don’t realise it. Even pure THC has medical properties, if the user is staving away withdrawal symptoms from alcohol, barbiturate or opiate dependency, or if they’re in extreme physical pain and need immediate relief.
We must also be careful of looking at any one cannabinoid in isolation. This is because they often work together synergistically (the “Entourage Effect”), and taking one cannabinoid away may well reduce the positive effects of another. Some cannabinoids interact in such a way that they also counteract the negative effects of another.
For this reason, we recommend being wary of consuming any “pure” cannabinoid substance without medical supervision, as: (a) you could well be diminishing the benefits of the plant as a whole by “chasing” after a particular cannabinoid; (b) the research behind cannabinoids is still young, and as such we do not know what the health effects of taking 99% pure THC (or CBD, CBG, CBN etc.) could be; and (c) you may well find that a strain with a unique cannabinoid and terpene profile could do just as good or a better job than a strain bred for the production of one or two particular cannabinoids.
Marijuana as Medicine
Are all marijuana users using it medically? We’d like to say a resounding “YES”. This is because, as explained above, those who use marijuana even for pleasure are also using a huge number of cannabinoids and terpenes beneficial for human health. If a substance is used by even supposedly “healthy” people to beat depression and anxiety, could it not be said that the marijuana is being used medically, with the “high” side-effects being a secondary concern?
The only area where marijuana use could be seen as recreational is with pure THC extracts (getting “more bang for your buck”), but there are potential medical applications in this area, too, as stated above in the “Both” section.
Perhaps the best way to explain marijuana as a medicine is by comparing it to food, rather than other psychoactive substances with little-to-no medical application or have a high rate of addiction and abuse. Marijuana and its extracts should potentially be seen in a similar light to fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables contain sugar, but they also have lots of other helpful vitamins and compounds that help keep you healthy.
This is like unprocessed marijuana flowers – potentially quite a bit of THC (depending upon strain), but with lots of other beneficial compounds. Pure THC, meanwhile, is like a candy bar full of processed sugars: best enjoyed sparingly (if at all), and possibly only by those suffering from extreme pain (in a similar way to why a diabetic might need a quick fix of sugar) or addiction, and looking for a safer alternative to painkillers.
The other thing that leads us to treat marijuana exclusively as a medicine – until evidence suggests otherwise, of course – is because it has such a broad range of medicinal uses. Marijuana is a unique substance with a cannabinoid and terpene profile rarely seen elsewhere in nature. This means that marijuana has a huge number of effects, from the energetic and focused to the sleepy and relaxed. This means the same substance can be used to treat conditions seemingly the complete opposite of one another! The perfect example of this is insomnia and narcolepsy, both conditions for which marijuana can be recommended.
Of course, there are health problems where marijuana use may not be recommended for, mostly as marijuana may interfere with other drugs and substances that could be saving your life. Also, some strains of marijuana may make symptoms worse, whilst other strains make symptoms better. We recommend seeing a doctor and asking if you are concerned about any of this.
In the meantime, however, we say marijuana is a medicine suitable for most people and most conditions, and it is about high time US laws reflect this, and maybe get rid of the distinction between “medical” and “recreational” users while they at it. (Hey, we can dream, too!)