Blurred boundaries: The therapeutics and politics of medical marijuana

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159 Scopus citations


For 5 millennia, Cannabis sativa has been used throughout the world medically, recreationally, and spiritually. From the mid-19th century to the 1930s, American physicians prescribed it for a plethora of indications, until the federal government started imposing restrictions on its use, culminating in 1970 with the US Congress classifying it as a Schedule I substance, illegal, and without medical value. Simultaneous with this prohibition, marijuana became the United States' most widely used illicit recreational drug, a substance generally regarded as pleasurable and relaxing without the addictive dangers of opioids or stimulants. Meanwhile, cannabis never lost its cachet in alternative medicine circles, going mainstream in 1995 when California became the first of 16 states to date to legalize its medical use, despite the federal ban. Little about cannabis is straightforward. Its main active ingredient, δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, was not isolated until 1964, and not until the 1990s were the far-reaching modulatory activities of the endocannabinoid system in the human body appreciated. This system's elucidation raises the possibility of many promising pharmaceutical applications, even as draconian federal restrictions that hamstring research show no signs of softening. Recreational use continues unabated, despite growing evidence of marijuana's addictive potential, particularly in the young, and its propensity for inducing and exacerbating psychotic illness in the susceptible. Public approval drives medical marijuana legalization efforts without the scientific data normally required to justify a new medication's introduction. This article explores each of these controversies, with the intent of educating physicians to decide for themselves whether marijuana is panacea, scourge, or both. PubMed searches were conducted using the following keywords: medical marijuana, medical cannabis, endocannabinoid system, CB1 receptors, CB2 receptors, THC, cannabidiol, nabilone, dronabinol, nabiximols, rimonabant, marijuana legislation, marijuana abuse, marijuana dependence, and marijuana and schizophrenia. Bibliographies were hand searched for additional references relevant to clarifying the relationships between medical and recreational marijuana use and abuse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)172-186
Number of pages15
JournalMayo Clinic proceedings
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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