The Marijuana Debate at a Stalemate

by Anamiguel Pomales & Emily Culbertson

In the past few years, marijuana has transitioned from a government-controlled substance to one of the most popular topics in today’s society. Marijuana has become a large part of popular culture, and twenty-three states have passed laws legalizing its medical use. The ongoing cultural and political debate about the hazards and benefits of marijuana often overshadows and contradicts the medical science debate. With so much being said about marijuana, whom should we believe?

The use of marijuana in medical settings is not groundbreaking. Evidence of marijuana use dates back to 2700 B.C.E, when the Emperor of China, Shen Nung, discovered marijuana’s medicinal use. In addition, marijuana was commonly used to make oil and was considered to be a nutritious seed often referred to as the “royal grain.” By 1 A.D. marijuana was used to treat over 100 diseases including gout, rheumatism, malaria, vomiting, parasitic infections and hemorrhage.

More recent research, namely the discovery of the endogenous cannabinoid neuronal system, has taught us that our ancestors were on the right track and that marijuana's therapeutic uses are potentially endless.  

Cannabinoids are released during the consumption of marijuana and bind to specific receptors that are found in the basal ganglia, hippocampus and cerebellum. The main cannabinoid in marijuana is Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is responsible for the psychoactive effects one experiences after consuming or smoking marijuana.  The presence of endocannabinoids, which are naturally found in small amounts in the brain and other tissues, set off a series of G-protein coupled reactions and cell signaling cascades ultimately leading to decreased release of certain neurotransmitters, such asdopamine, GABA, and glutamate and certain intercellular signals, such as cytokines.

These effects decrease pain, reduce nausea and vomiting, alleviate muscle spasms, stimulate hunger and increase feelings of euphoria.

Cancer patients in particular benefit from the use of medicinal marijuana, as chemotherapy is an arduous and debilitating treatment.  Marijuana remedies many of chemotherapy’s side effects and improves patients’ quality of life.

In a study conducted by the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, cannabinoids were significantly more efficient in minimizing nausea and vomiting than current medications administered to cancer patients. Cannabinoids present in marijuana achieve this by inhibiting CB1 and CB2 receptors in the dorsal vagal brainstem, where the emesis center responsible for triggering vomiting is located.

As some scientists surge forward in research that investigates marijuana’s benefits, others investigate a detrimental link between cancer and smoking marijuana. Recent findings indicate that marijuana stimulates the MAP kinase pathway, an oncogenic pathway responsible for the rapid formation of tumors. This may imply a strong correlation between marijuana smoke and malignant cell replication. A cohort study conducted in Sweden over a 40-year time span found that regularly smoking marijuana doubled a patient’s chances for developing lung cancer.

With this conflicting information, it is difficult to determine whether marijuana should be used for medicinal purposes. It is clear that more research on the subject is necessary. However, as marijuana is currently classified as a schedule 1 drug -- dangerous and with no medical use -- very few research institutes have access to the drug, and those that do only possess small amounts.  

Within the dissonant views on the use of marijuana for medical purposes, PittNORML, a campus organization that educates students on marijuana legalization, believes that the benefits of medical marijuana are substantial and that its use is vital for maintaining health. “For thousands if not millions of potential patients for whom cannabis could make a difference in quality of life or outcome,” the organization states “a tool is being withheld from caregivers as long as medical cannabis is prohibited.”

It seems science and politics have reached a stalemate. What will be the tiebreaker?