Medical Marijuana: "Medical" vs Non-Medical Strains
What Makes a Strain "Medical"?
What's the difference between "medical" and non-medical marijuana? Well the answer is that there is no "real" difference between adult-use and medical marijuana.
When it comes to cannabis, there are thousands of varieties which can have quite a wide spectrum of possible effects, and some of these effects are more "medical" than others.
In fact, there are so many strains known as cannabis that it's pretty much impossible to try to neatly categorize them all. You'll hear people talk about the difference between "indica" and "sativa" strains, but nearly every single strain of cannabis you run into today is actually some sort of hybrid. Instead of focusing on whether a strain is indica or sativa, or some other aspect like how it looks/smells, when it comes to medical marijuana it's often a lot more useful to choose based purely on the effects of each individual strain.
Does medical marijuana make you "messed up?"
While many types of cannabis have strong mental and/or physical effects, some types of cannabis are completely non-psychoactive, which means they won't affect your thinking much, if at all. Non-psychoactive varieties of cannabis have very low levels of THC. However, there are many patients who use high-THC varieties of cannabis for the relief of certain types of symptoms like pain and nausea.
What Diseases Can Medical Marijuana Cure?
The first thing that I think is really really important to get out there is that cannabis has not been proven to "cure" anything. Despite how much I love this plant and personally benefit from its properties, there is no credible scientific evidence that cannabis is some sort of cure-all.
That's not to say that medical marijuana/cannabis is without relieving properties. In fact, cannabis is so reliable at giving relief to those in need that it's been available for medical use in California for almost 20 years. As of 2016, there are over 20 additional states with some form of legislation to allow cannabis for those in need.
However, there are many people who are willing to offer false hope to very sick people, by saying that cannabis can cure their cancer, their MS or epilepsy. When someone says that cannabis can actually "cure" something, their comments should be taken with a healthy bit of skepticism and a huge grain of salt until you're given information that legitimizes their claim. Again, as of yet, there is no proof that marijuana "cures" anything in that it hasn't been proven to completely eliminate a disease or condition.
I'm not saying that medical marijuana doesn't cure anything, just that we don't currently have evidence that it does. And when it comes to evaluating your possible medical options, I believe it's incredibly important to look at the evidence, and not go by word of mouth from people who are not medical practitioners.
Unfortunately, despite what you may have heard there is no credible evidence that marijuana "cures" anything (though research is ongoing). What marijuana has actually been shown to do is offer relief from specific symptoms.
There is a lot of substantive evidence that some people are experiencing relief from cannabis for various symptoms, and that's going to be the focus of this article.
Which Strains Work for Which Symptoms?
I can give you some general guidelines (find them below) to help you get started, but there are no absolutes when it comes to the effects of different strains. Not only do strains have different effects if they're grown under different conditions, even the same buds affect people differently.
What gives some people relief from persistent pain or muscle spasms may aggravate those same symptoms for others. A strain might be so potent that it causes some people anxiety, meanwhile someone else might be looking for that same potency to reduce pain. What helps prevent some people from having seizures can actually trigger seizures in others.
This huge spectrum of effects is part of why we need to legally reschedule cannabis as a whole plant, so we can start to tease apart the specific components of cannabis that cause each specific effect, like how we would with any other medicine.
As it is now, patients in the medical marijuana scene must go off of 'iffy' information combined with personal trial and error. There is no current database or other good way for medical marijuana providers and patients to share their experiences with each other. Because cannabis is illegal on a federal level in the US, there is very little reputable research that can be conducted on a large scale without the worry of some kind of legal trouble.
Example of Medical Marijuana from a Dispensary in California - Often You Don't Get Much Information About What You're Buying!
This is part of why it can be so much better to grow your own medical marijuana at home - you get to choose exactly what you want!
However, because of all the misinformation out there, when it comes to finding relief with medical marijuana it's important to be realistic and manage expectations. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
All that being said, we do know some stuff about medical marijuana and what makes it effective for some patients and not-so-effective for others.
What We Know About Medical Marijuana
There are different components found in cannabis which cause different effects. Although some substances such as terpenes (aromatics/smells) may alter the mental and physical effects of buds, it is the cannabinoids found in cannabis flowers that are the subject of most research and interest. Cannabinoids work on natural receptors in our brain, causing the majority of effects attributed to cannabis.
Here's a very short list of common cannabis cannabinoids (say that three times fast!) that have medical interest for researchers and patients. There are dozens more, but these are the ones we know the most about.
THC vs CBD vs CBN
THC - responsible for many of the mental, anti-nausea and possibly pain-relieving effects
CBD - great promise for the relief of anxiety, seizures, and many more conditions
CBN - CBN levels rise as buds are allowed to go longer before harvest. It has a relaxing or body effect, and is less psychoactive than THC.
Other Cannabinoids - There are dozens, even hundreds of cannabinoids that can be found in various strains of cannabis or hemp. Most of these are not well studied or may not even be officially identified yet!
Common Conditions That May Find Relief From Medical Marijuana
Pain, Spasms, Nausea & Lack of Appetite - often treated with high-THC strains, and results vary widely from patient to patient so it's best to gage results on a strain-by-strain basis
Seizures / Epilepsy / Dravet Syndrome - I have epilepsy and it's insane how much incorrect information I see thrown around about medical marijuana. The truth is, some epilepsy patients are reporting a reduction of symptoms when using high-CBD strains. Most of these patients are using medical marijuana in addition to their other prescriptions, not as a replacement. However, higher levels of THC can actually trigger seizures for some patients, and most strains available today are high-THC and low-CBD. That means that most types of cannabis have the potential to cause seizure symptoms to get worse! Therefore it's incredibly important for epilepsy patients to know what they're getting, and also to work closely with their neurologist when making any changes to their medication!
Anxiety - generally the best results for reducing anxiety seem to be reported with high-CBD, low THC cannabis, though not always. For some people high THC can exacerbate anxiety, especially if trying cannabis in a new or unusual situation, or when taking more at once than they're used to. Note: Buds that are harvested too early, or not dried and cured properly are more likely to cause anxiety and headaches for some people.
Mullaways Medical Cannabis' medical crop, used for cannabinoid research in Australia
Vaping & Edibles for Medical Marijuana
When it comes to medical marijuana, smoking isn't the best option as it can irritate lungs and there's a lot of evidence smoking isn't good for you!
However, vaping (vaporizing your weed instead of burning it) or eating edibles (cannabis in edible form) are considered the "gold standard" way to take advantage of medical marijuana.
Grow Tactics for Medical Marijuana
Strain is the most important aspect of growing cannabis plants when it comes to producing the effects you want!
How to Increase THC When Growing Weed
- Start with a high-THC strain <-- Most important!
- Keep plants healthy
- Don't harvest early
- Dry and cure your buds after harvest to maximize potency
- Maintain a good growing environment
How to Increase CBD When Growing Weed
High-CBD Strain - Like THC, the most important aspect of producing high levels of CBD is to grow a high-CBD strain. Although clones are best because you know exactly what you're getting, there are now seeds available online for those who don't have access to medical marijuana clones.
Autoflowering Strains - Auto-flowering strains can be a good choice because they are more closely related to wild hemp and naturally have higher levels of CBD than most other types of cannabis. Although there are cannabis strains bred specifically for CBD which have higher levels, nearly all auto-flowers have at least 1-2% CBD (compared to less than 1% in most strains).
Don't harvest early - Harvesting at right time maximizes cannabinoid and CBD levels
How Long After I Switch to Medical Marijuana Can I Stop Taking My Prescription?
There are likely some people who may be able to stop taking their prescriptions and manage their symptoms purely with medical marijuana. These patients are featured in stories and articles about medical marijuana so it might give the impression that they are the majority.
But the truth is, in all my years speaking with various medical marijuana patients, I haven't spoken to a single patient who was able to completely replace all of their prescription medications with medical marijuana. Instead, the patients I've talked to almost always use marijuana in addition to the prescription medication that they've been prescribed by their doctor.
Most Patients Use Cannabis in Addition to Their Prescription Medications, Not as a Replacement
This doesn't mean that cannabis won't be effective at improving the quality of life for someone suffering from any one of a number of conditions. However, anyone trying cannabis for medicinal reasons should be aware that if you're already taking medicine for a condition, cannabis will likely help you in conjunction with prescribed medication as opposed to replacing it.
Just as an example, you've probably seen one of the popular news stories about medical marijuana helping children with serious seizure conditions like Dravet Syndrome. While high-CBD cannabis is helping to make massive improvements in their quality of life, many of these children are still taking prescription medications in addition to taking cannabis. The cannabis is simply used in addition to other medications to further relieve symptoms that the medication wasn't as effective at treating.
In some cases patients are able to reduce the amount of other meds they need to take every day, and as more research is done into cannabis, the amount of relief it can provide will certainly increase. However, those thinking about trying cannabis for medicinal reasons should go in with the expectation that if anything, cannabis will likely be an addition to your regimen.
Growing Medical Marijuana for a Friend or Family Member
A lot of people write to us because they want to try growing a high-CBD or other medical marijuana strain for a sick friend or relative. It's a very human, and very admirable trait to want to help people if we can, especially the people we love! Every time I hear from a concerned family member trying to do all they can, I think of how fortunate you have to be to have someone who cares so much!
I also feel a pang of sadness at how much of a task is ahead of someone thinking to jump into indoor growing without knowing what it entails. After deciding to try medical marijuana, often someone's initial plan is to start a whole grow operation, get a high-CBD strain, grow it, prepare it and then hope it actually does something. As admirable as this quest is, there are many possible points of failure. Anyone who tries to do this could be setting themselves up for a lot of possible heartache!
Unless you enjoy growing cannabis just for the sake of it, I believe it's very important to try to confirm that cannabis will even do something for you or your friend or family member before you set off on a 4-month journey to grow it yourself!