If you’re interested in how cannabis can help enhance your personal wellness, you might also be wondering: what is medical marijuana?
Medical marijuana refers to cannabis products — typically those containing THC as the dominant cannabinoid — that can be purchased through specially designed state-run programs, even though cannabis is still federally illegal.
Unlike with recreational cannabis sales, medical marijuana patients require a physician’s recommendation to purchase cannabis through a medical marijuana program.
Read on for a deep dive into medical marijuana, what conditions medical marijuana could help treat, and more.
Medical marijuana is simply a term used to describe cannabis consumption in the context of medical treatment. Consumers must consult with a qualified physician to acquire a medical marijuana card. This consultation can also help patients find which cannabinoids and terpenes might best fit their needs.
A medical cannabis card offers benefits such as granting access to dispensaries in states where cannabis hasn’t been legalized for recreational use or increasing the amount of cannabis products an individual can have on their person.
Also, in some states with legal recreational cannabis, medical patients might be exempt from certain taxes or be eligible for discounts.
There are some differences between the preferred products used by medical patients and those used by recreational consumers, according to one of the few studies comparing product choice and use patterns between medical and recreational cannabis consumers.
For example, medical patients who never consume cannabis for what might be considered “recreational” effects like reducing stress or elevating a social experience consistently opted for high-CBD strains, according to one study.
The same study found that cannabis flower is similarly popular among recreational and medical consumers, with medical patients preferring flower slightly to edibles. Medical users were also found to consume a wider variety of cannabis products, such as vape cartridges, concentrates, and tinctures.
Interestingly, the study notes that most medical marijuana patients also consume cannabis for its non-medical benefits, and that medical marijuana patients consume cannabis more frequently than their recreational-only counterparts.
“Given that medical users are often treating chronic conditions, daily use is not unexpected and perhaps the higher amount consumed may be related to tolerance,” the authors state.
While the authors don’t state this specifically, differences in consumption frequency could be a key factor driving the divide between medical and recreational consumer purchase preferences.
In the United States, the conditions that could allow an individual to qualify for a medical marijuana card can vary from state to state.
There are a few extremely common qualifying conditions, however, such as chronic pain.
“The most common use for medical marijuana in the United States is for pain control,” according to physician and renowned cannabis researcher Peter Grinspoon, MD.
“While marijuana isn’t strong enough for severe pain (for example, post-surgical pain or a broken bone), it is quite effective for the chronic pain that plagues millions of Americans, especially as they age,” Grinspoon adds.
“Part of its allure is that it is clearly safer than opiates (it is impossible to overdose on and far less addictive) and it can take the place of NSAIDs such as Advil or Aleve, if people can’t take them due to problems with their kidneys or ulcers or GERD.”
Other common conditions that consumers report using medical marijuana to help treat include muscle spasms from multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and chemotherapy-induced nausea, as well as irritable bowel syndrome.
To determine whether the condition you’re looking to address qualifies you for a medical marijuana card, first look into your state’s cannabis laws to see if your state has a medical marijuana program. The cannabis activist organization NORML maintains a helpful database of current cannabis laws by state.
Click on your state in the NORML map, and navigate to the section on medical marijuana if your state has a program. This will take you to a list of qualifying conditions for your state.
Despite their current use to differentiate between the effects consumers can expect from a cannabis product, the terms “sativa” and “indica” are not directly related to the effects of cannabis.
Cannabis sativa, the Latin term for one main species of the cannabis plant, was introduced by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753 for the common hemp plant grown in Europe and Asia. The term Cannabis indica was introduced in the 1780s to indicate the main species category for hemp plants from India, which can produce higher levels of THC and is more commonly used for medical marijuana.
Colloquially, “sativa” is now used to describe stains that typically produce stimulating, cerebral or “heady” effects, and “indica” describes strains that typically produce more sedative or relaxing effects. “Hybrid” strains are expected to produce effects associated with both categories.
More recently, cannabis cultivators and researchers have begun arguing for a new classification system based on chemotypes — a profile of the compounds present in a strain — instead of phenotypes, which are based more on observable traits of a strain while it grows and the effects it produces.
As one overview published in the journal HortScience explains, “Cannabis can be assigned as one of three chemotypes based on THC and CBD content. Chemotype I is THC dominant, with more than 0.3% THC and less than 0.5% CBD. Chemotype II is intermediate, with high contents of both CBD (more than 0.5% THC) and THC (more than 0.3% THC).”
And, as the cannabis science community’s knowledge of terpenes and their effects grows, new methods of categorization are being introduced to incorporate terpene profiles and their anticipated effects.
The introduction of cannabis product categorization by terpene profile is especially important for medical cannabis users seeking out specific effects, such as boosting energy or easing sleep, as terpenes are frequently credited for producing those effects. Understanding the terpene profile of a product at a glance gives medical marijuana patients a better idea of what a product can do for them.
CBD and medical marijuana are both cannabis-derived products that have shown potential to promote individual wellness. However, there are some important differences in the legal status and use cases of each product.
While medical marijuana might sometimes contain CBD, the regulations for CBD-only products are more lenient than those governing any cannabis product containing THC, regardless of where you are in the United States.
This is because of the Agricultural Improvement Act, also referred to as the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized the growth and sale of CBD-rich hemp and hemp-derived CBD products at the federal level, effectively making CBD legal in all 50 states.
Despite this nod of approval from Congress, the Food and Drug Administration is still working out how to regulate the CBD industry. In the meantime, the lack of regulation has led to some deviations in dose consistency across products and brands.
It’s important to ensure any CBD products you purchase come from a reputable source. We recommend purchasing from a retailer you trust or checking out Jointly’s online cannabis marketplace for top-rated cannabis and CBD products. Either way, you can have your CBD products shipped directly to you in the mail.
In contrast to the relative Wild West of CBD regulations, medical marijuana — which typically contains THC levels greater than the 0.3% by dry weight legal limit — is tightly governed by each state with a medical marijuana program.
The properties and use cases of CBD-only products and medical marijuana also differ. First, CBD is a non-intoxicating compound, meaning that it doesn’t produce the sensations typically associated with a cannabis “high”.
Second, unlike medical marijuana, CBD is typically used for psychological issues, such as dealing with stress and anxiety, as well as for more mild physical symptoms like chronic pain. Medical marijuana, as noted above, has shown promise for a variety of more intense physical symptoms.
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