Legalization of Medical Marijuana: The Impact on Those Living With Chronic Health Conditions

Surveys show a majority of people in the United States are in favor of legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use. As of early 2022, cannabis for medical use, or medical marijuana, is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.2

While medical marijuana is legal in much of the country, these laws impact people living with chronic health conditions in different ways.

Does wider access lead to more people using cannabis?

As access to legal cannabis has grown, so has the number of people using it. About 48 million people in the United States reported using cannabis in 2019. There was a 60 percent increase in reported use from 2002 to 2019.2

Cannabis use continues to rise among:3,4

  • Older adults
  • Women
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • People with higher family incomes
  • People with mental health disorders

About 10 percent of cannabis users say they treat a medical condition with the drug.2

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Good information on medical marijuana is lacking

Research, data, and reliable information about cannabis and its effects are still limited. This is partly due to public health messaging and national law.2

Lack of research and good information limits people and their doctors from having evidence-based conversations. Researchers have found ample misleading and inaccurate information about medical marijuana online.2,5

Varying state policies and laws can make things confusing

State guidelines and other official sources of information differ. That information is not always based on strong evidence. As of November 2021, cannabis has been approved to treat more than 105 health conditions. However, the approved conditions vary from state to state.2

People are left to interpret this mixed messaging on their own. That can be dangerous. Inconsistent policies about the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana can directly impact people with chronic health conditions. People living with chronic health conditions might think because the substance is legal, it is always safe. However, there are risks linked with cannabis use, including addiction, intoxication, and impaired driving.2

Can cannabis help people with chronic health conditions?

The most common health conditions that qualify for medical marijuana include:6

  • Cancer
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Glaucoma
  • Seizures/epilepsy
  • Chronic pain

Some people living with a chronic health condition may choose to medicate with cannabis. But can the drug be beneficial? There is no blanket answer. That can be confusing for people living with a chronic condition. Some might find symptom relief with cannabis use, while others may not. Limited research points to varied results for different conditions.6

One 2017 report found strong evidence that cannabis provided relief for chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and spasticity from multiple sclerosis.6

However, in that report, researchers also found little or no evidence that cannabis has any therapeutic effect for conditions such as:6

  • Anorexia
  • Weight loss associated with HIV
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Epilepsy
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Huntington's disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions that cause repetitive or twisting movements)
  • Dementia
  • Glaucoma
  • Addiction
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Sleep disorders

Better access does not mean better treatment

Legalizing marijuana in more states means more access to a potential treatment. For people who do not respond to traditional treatment options, medical marijuana can offer hope. However, that access does not guarantee better treatment. Mixed messaging and doctor reluctance to discuss cannabis therapy may lead to confusion or unrealistic expectations.2

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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