by Mitchell Welton, PharmD Candidate 2019
University of Arizona
The use of marijuana draws a wide range of strong opinions out of people. Its advocates will tout all of its potential benefits of medical marijuana, while its opponents try to draw from the negative stigma that surrounds it. As in all hotly contested topics, the truth usually falls somewhere in between the opposing viewpoints. While the use of marijuana still remains illegal at the federal level, there are many states that have approved its medical use for qualifying individuals to treat certain conditions, and even fewer states have approved its recreational use.
California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use in 1996 and since then many states have followed suit. About a dozen states have legalized marijuana for medical use. The difference between medical and recreational use warrants its own discussion and the disagreement can be seen at a legislative level with more leniency being extended to medical over recreational. This author would generalize medical marijuana in this article as containing a higher concentration of CBD over THC, for all intents and purposes, in order to discuss medical marijuana compared to FDA approved cannabinoids.
Medical Marijuana (MMJ) Uses
The two chemicals of interest found in marijuana are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) although the plant itself may contain up to 400 different chemicals. A recreational smoker would be looking for a higher concentration of THC which is the psychoactive component delivering the “high” that users seek. 1 CBD is the cannabinoid that doesn’t produce the “high” and has recently been approved by the FDA as an oral solution, called Epidiolex, to treat seizures. There are currently only three FDA approved, cannabinoid medications on the market. 2
The first of these medications was approved in 1985 by the FDA known as Marinol or dronabinol. A synthetic form of THC first approved for the treatment of chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting. Its indication was expanded to include the treatment of weight loss and anorexia in people with AIDS. Other studies have found efficacy in achieving pain relief in patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) and treating other neuropathic pain. 3 Cesamet, or nabilone, is another synthetic cannabinoid that mimics THC also approved in 1985 for the treatment of chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting with off label use to treat fibromyalgia shown in a 2011 systematic review of cannabinoids for chronic pain. 4 The third, Epidiolex, has already been mentioned which is the first FDA approved drug derived from marijuana. The previous two drugs where synthetic. Epidiolex is used in the treatment of two rare, but severe forms of epilepsy. 2
MMJ Safety Factors
There are multiple factors to consider when thinking of safety between the two types of marijuana. First that comes to mind is the administration. Let’s take dronabinol for example as it has been around the longest from an FDA approval standpoint and such has been examined in multiple studies. This is a liquid filled capsule taken by mouth. Like many oral medications it may take some time for it to be absorbed which means a delay in its effect. This is something to keep in mind as a quick onset of action would be preferred when treating nausea and vomiting. Once the capsule is taken by mouth and absorbed the next consideration is its excretion from the body.
Dronabinol has an elimination half life of 19 to 36 hours meaning there will be a therapeutic level of the medication in the blood for a significant period of time. Other considerations I would bring to attention of the reader is the environment in which the medication is produced. Part of the FDA requirement is the manufacturing standard the medication is subjected to. Conditions must be controlled in its production which would allow us to assume there would be little tainting or contamination. Lastly, this synthetic medication is a pure isomer of THC meaning the end user is not consuming the potential 400 other chemicals found in the marijuana plant which could account for less of a “high” from any other psychoactive cannabinoids. 5
Marijuana in contrast when smoked has a much more rapid onset of action however may be inappropriate for use in patients with asthma or COPD. Ingesting marijuana will have a slower onset and more unpredictable absorption. Once in the system the body would eliminate marijuana faster than dronabinol. Though its production is not regulated like the FDA approved medications, each state has its own laws limiting the cultivating of your own marijuana and licensing of larger cannabis farms. 5
No matter where you might stand on the issue, there is a place in healthcare for the use of marijuana. The question lies in the best way to regulate and manage it. It is important to always evaluate safety and efficacy with any treatment used. Patients should always be treated with evidence-based methods and in accordance to state and federal laws. For better or for worse marijuana, and its use, continues to garner support and opposition in larger numbers. This is a landscape that will continue to change as we look for developments in the application of its use.
- What Is the Difference Between Medical and Recreational Marijuana? (2018, September 10). Retrieved from https://docmj.com/2017/06/05/difference-medical-recreational-marijuana/
- Office of the Commissioner. (n.d.). Press Announcements – FDA approves first drug comprised of an active ingredient derived from marijuana to treat rare, severe forms of epilepsy. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm611046.htm
- Dronabinol: Marinol. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2018, from Micromedex.
- Nabilone: Cesamet. (n.d.). Retrieved November 19, 2018, from Micromedex.
- Morrow, A. (n.d.). Marinol or Marijuana: Which Is Better? Retrieved from https://www.verywellhealth.com/is-marinol-better-than-smoked-marijuana-1132483
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