Despite a federal ban, many states allow use of medical marijuana to treat pain, nausea and other symptoms.
Medical marijuana is marijuana used to treat disease or relieve symptoms. Marijuana is made from the dried leaves and buds of the Cannabis sativa plant. It can be smoked, inhaled or ingested in food or tea. Medical marijuana is also available as a pill or an oil.
In the U.S. medical marijuana — also referred to as medical cannabis — is legal in a growing number of states to ease pain, nausea and other side effects of medical treatments, as well as to treat some diseases. Depending on why a person is using medical marijuana, treatment may be short term or continue for years.
Is medical marijuana legal under federal law in the U.S.?
No. Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug under federal law, and federal law regulating marijuana supersedes state law. Because of the discrepancy between state and federal laws, people may still be arrested and charged with possession in states where marijuana for medical use is legal.
Each state that has legalized medical marijuana regulates who may use it and how the product is distributed within its borders. Some states have processes for certifying and registering eligible people. Some have also designated dispensaries, or medical marijuana centers, where people can get the product and advice on dosing and what form to use for their condition.
When is medical marijuana appropriate?
Studies report that marijuana has possible benefit for several conditions. State laws vary in which conditions qualify people for treatment with medical marijuana. If you're considering marijuana for medical use, check your state's regulations.
Depending on which state you live in, you may qualify for treatment with medical marijuana if you meet certain requirements and have a qualifying condition, such as:
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Anorexia due to HIV/AIDS
- Chronic pain
- Crohn's disease
- Epilepsy or seizures
- Glaucoma, although the American Academy of Ophthalmology doesn't recommend medical marijuana
- Multiple sclerosis or severe muscle spasms
- Nausea, vomiting or severe wasting associated with cancer treatment
- Terminal illness
- Tourette syndrome
If you are experiencing uncomfortable symptoms or side effects of medical treatment, especially pain and nausea, talk with your doctor about all your options before trying marijuana. Doctors may consider medical marijuana as an option if other treatments haven't helped.
Is medical marijuana safe?
Further study is needed to answer this question, but possible short- and long-term risks of using marijuana to treat medical conditions include:
- Addiction, which occurs in about 10 percent of users who start smoking marijuana before age 25
- Breathing problems, for people who smoke marijuana
- Impaired concentration and memory
- Increased heart rate
- Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
- Mental illness in people with a tendency toward it
- Negative drug-to-drug interactions
- Slower reaction times
- Withdrawal symptoms
Is medical marijuana available as a prescription medicine?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two drugs made from synthetic forms of ingredients found in marijuana: dronabinol (Marinol, Syndros) and nabilone (Cesamet). These medicines are made from synthetic forms of certain ingredients in marijuana.
They can be legally prescribed for the treatment of nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy when other treatments have failed. Dronabinol may also be used for the treatment of anorexia associated with weight loss in people with AIDS.
The FDA has also approved two clinical research projects for new forms of marijuana ingredients.
What you can expect
Medical marijuana comes in a variety of forms, including:
- Vaporized liquid
- Nasal spray
- Dried leaves and buds
How and where you purchase these substances legally varies among the states that allow medical use of marijuana. Once you have the product, you administer it yourself. How often you use it depends on its form and your symptoms.
Your symptom relief and side effects also will vary. You may notice the marijuana taking effect in 30 minutes or hours. The extent and timing of its effects may be harder to control with the pill form than with smoking.
Some medical marijuana is formulated to provide symptom relief without the intoxicating, mood-altering effects associated with recreational use of marijuana.
Oct. 14, 2016
Certification and use at Mayo Clinic
Arizona, Florida and Minnesota have adopted some form of the Right to Try Act for terminal patients, which provides for early access to investigational treatments, including possibly marijuana. The Right to Try Act typically does not limit in-state use to in-state residents only. Statements below do not apply to Right to Try situations.
In Arizona, medical marijuana is legal as plant material to smoke. Mayo Clinic campuses in Arizona do not dispense medical marijuana, certify people for using it, or allow its use on campus or in the hospital.
Florida law permits qualified physicians to order low-THC cannabis or medical cannabis for patients diagnosed with certain conditions. Patients must be Florida residents to be eligible to participate. Mayo Clinic campuses cannot dispense medical marijuana and do not allow its use on campus or in the hospital at this time.
Iowa allows people to be registered in a medical marijuana program by a physician licensed in Iowa. But it has no state-authorized dispensing sites. Mayo Clinic doctors in Iowa can register patients for the Minnesota medical marijuana program only if the doctor is also licensed in Minnesota and is part of that state's Department of Health registry; the patient is a Minnesota resident and part of the state's registry; and the patient does not transport marijuana across state lines (still a federal offense).
In Minnesota, medical cannabis is available as pills, oils and liquids at state-designated dispensaries. It is not available at pharmacies or through a prescription from a doctor. To receive medical cannabis from a dispensary, Minnesota residents with qualifying conditions need to register with the Minnesota Department of Health. As part of the registration process, a physician, physician assistant or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) must certify that you have a qualifying medical condition.
Mayo Clinic practices in Minnesota may certify Minnesota residents with qualifying conditions in the Minnesota medical cannabis program. Not all Mayo Clinic health care providers will be registered for the certification process in Minnesota. Rochester has one of several approved medical cannabis dispensing sites in Minnesota. Others are in Eagan, Hibbing, Eden Prairie, Minneapolis, Moorhead, St. Cloud and St. Paul.
In Wisconsin, marijuana for medical use is not legal.
- Arizona Department of Health Services: Medical marijuana
- Florida Health: Office of Compassionate Use
- Minnesota Department of Health: Medical cannabis
- National Conference of State Legislatures: State medical marijuana laws
See more In-depth
- MDH medical cannabis survey finds top conditions are multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and cancer. Minnesota Department of Health. http://www.health.state.mn.us/news/pressrel/2015/cannabis022315.html. Accessed July 27, 2016.
- Volkow ND, et al. Adverse health effects of marijuana use. New England Journal of Medicine. 2014;370:2219.
- Wolff V, et al. Cannabis-related stroke: Myth or reality? Stroke. 2013;43:558.
- DrugFacts: Is marijuana medicine? National Institute on Drug Abuse. http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana-medicine. Accessed July 27, 2016.
- Koppel BS, et al. Systematic review: Efficacy and safety of the therapeutic use of medical marijuana in selected neurologic disorders. Report of the Guideline Development Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology. Neurology. 2014;82:1556.
- Does marijuana help treat glaucoma? American Academy of Ophthalmology. http://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/medical-marijuana-glaucoma-treament. Accessed July 27, 2016.
- Bostwick JM. The use of cannabis for management of chronic pain. General Hospital Psychiatry. 2014;36:2.
- Bostwick JM. Blurred boundaries: The therapeutics and politics of medical marijuana. Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2012;87:172.
- Drug monograph: Marijuana, medical. Gold Standard. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed July 27, 2016.
- Medical cannabis. Minnesota Department of Health. http://www.health.state.mn.us/topics/cannabis/index.html. Accessed July 27, 2016.
- State medical marijuana laws. National Conference of State Legislatures. http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-medical-marijuana-laws.aspx. Accessed July 27, 2016.
- AskMayoExpert. Medical cannabis. Rochester, Minn.: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2016.
- Medical marijuana: Arizona. Mayo Clinic. http://mayocontent.mayo.edu/ipm/DOCMAN-0000112944?qt=marijuana. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Office of Compassionate Use. Florida Health. http://www.floridahealth.gov/programs-and-services/office-of-compassionate-use/index.html. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Auslen M. First medical marijuana available next week in Florida. Miami Herald. July 20, 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/news/health-care/article90896132.html. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Cannabis and cannabinoids. PDQ Cancer Information Summaries. National Institutes of Health. http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/cannabis-pdq. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- FDA and marijuana: Questions and answers. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm421168.htm. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Marinol (prescribing information). North Chicago, Ill.: AbbiVie Inc.; 2016. http://www.rxabbvie.com/pdf/marinol_PI.pdf. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Syndros (prescribing information). Chandler, Ariz.: Insys Therapeutics, Inc.; 2016. http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/drugsatfda_docs/label/2016/205525s000lbl.pdf. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Cesamet (prescribing information). Somerset, N.J.: Meda Pharmaceuticals; 2013. https://www.cesamet.com/pdf/Cesamet_PI_50_count.pdf. Accessed Aug. 23, 2016.
- Whiting PF, et al. Cannabinoids for medical use: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2015;313:2456.