The Medicinal Cannabis Debate

As a Schedule I controlled substance with no accepted medicinal use, high abuse potential, concerns for dependence, and lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision—along with a national stigma surrounding the potential harms and implication of cannabis use as a gateway drug to other substances—transitioning from a vilified substance to one with therapeutic merits has been controversial.

The United States Pharmacopoeia and the FDA have considered the complexities of regulating this plant-based therapy, including the numerous compounds and complex interactions between substances in this product, and how it might fit into the current regulatory framework of drugs in United States.

The emergence of interest in botanical medicinal cannabis is thought by many to be a collateral effect of the opioid abuse epidemic; public perception surrounding the use of medicinal cannabis suggests that this plant-based therapy is viewed as not much different than a botanical drug product or supplement used for health or relief of symptoms if disease persists.

Like some herbal preparations or supplements, however, medicinal cannabis may similarly pose health risks associated with its use, including psychoactive, intoxicating, and impairing effects, which have not been completely elucidated through clinical trials.

Proponents argue that there is evidence to support botanical medicinal cannabis in the treatment of a variety of conditions, particularly when symptoms are refractory to other therapies, including chemotherapy; that beneficial cannabinoids exist, as evidenced by single-entity agents derived from cannabis containing the compounds THC and cannabidiol (CBD); that cannabis is relatively safe, with few deaths reported from use; that therapy is self-titratable by the patient; and that therapy is relatively inexpensive compared with pharmaceutical agents.

Opponents of medicinal cannabis use argue, in part, that well-designed randomized trials to confirm benefits and harms are lacking; that it has not been subject to the rigors of the FDA approval process; that standardization in potency or quantity of pharmacologically active constituents is absent; that adverse health effects relate not only to smoking cannabis but to unmasking mental health disorders, impairing coordination, and affecting judgment; that standardization does not exist for product packaging and controls to prevent inadvertent use by minors or pets; that there is a potential for dependence, addiction, and abuse; and that costs pose a potential burden.

Regardless of personal views and perceptions, to deny or disregard the implications of use of this substance on patient health and the infrastructure of the health care system is irresponsible; clinicians must be aware of these implications and informed about how this therapy may influence practice in a variety of health care settings, including acute care.

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