Marijuana, or Cannabis, is the most commonly used drug throughout the world according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and the number 3 in America behind alcohol and tobacco. Though still federally illegal to purchase and use, recreational marijuana is becoming legalized by individual states across the country, and blurring the lines between it’s predecessor, medical marijuana. In a world where the term for it – in it’s many colorful forms – means “the same thing” to most of us, we want to share clarifications on the difference between the two and what you should know as a user, a parent or if you’re considering trying it for the first time. As a substance abuse provider, our mission is to clarify the risks associated with recreational and medical cannabis, respectively. It is our chief concern to identify the highly variable risk factors relative to both, and let you decide if one of these choices might be a consideration for you or a loved one.
To start with, there is no specific ratio of chemical compounds that clearly identifies the difference between medical cannabis and recreational weed … yet. In the future, there may be regulations on how much of certain chemicals are present in each for qualification. But as it’s still yet unidentified, it’s difficult to put either version into a clearly defined “box” for accurate scrutinization to be achieved.
For our purposes of identifying a broader explanation, our article will explain in general terms what the differences are between medically derived and recreationally produced cannabis so you can better understand the social and ethical debate that is sweeping across our country.
From a legal perspective, legislature prohibits medical marijuana from being sold at the same dispensary as recreational marijuana. Furthermore, recreational marijuana cannot have medicinal claims, and respectively, medical marijuana cannot have recreational claims. Also, medical marijuana requires a doctors written prescription to obtain, and does not include the hefty taxes that recreational cannabis comes with.
Medical cannabis can be administered using a variety of methods, including liquid tinctures, vaporizing or smoking dried buds, eating cannabis edibles, taking capsules, using lozenges, dermal patches or oral/dermal sprays. In this comparison, recreational marijuana can be used in the same way. The major difference in the ratio of chemical compounds found in each. In short, medical marijuana is almost devoid of the psychoactive chemicals that give recreational and illicit marijuana their “high”.
Understanding Medical Marijuana
Medical marijuana is typically high in the naturally occurring chemical, Cannabidiol (or CBD). This chemical is rich with medicinal benefits that have been associated with helping people who are battling chronic illnesses or diseases such as chronic pain, epilepsy, schizophrenia, cancer, nausea, nerve pain, unintentional weight loss, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis for both adults and children. Many medical marijuana forms contain very low amounts of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC as it’s commonly referred to. This is the “psychoactive” chemical ingredient associated with marijuana, which offers users the “high” we typically associate with taking the drug. In medical marijuana, the levels of THC vary but are typically so low that they don’t cause the euphoric effects that recreational users are interested in. In this way, pharmaceutical-grade cannabis is meant to help people suffering from truly debilitating conditions without posing the threat of addiction or abuse, that which may be more likely from using recreational weed.
According to the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, cannabis relieves convulsion, inflammation, anxiety, nausea, and inhibits cancer cell growth. Recent studies have shown cannabis to be as effective as antipsychotics in treating schizophrenia. In November 2007 it was reported that CBD reduces growth of aggressive human breast cancer cells in vitro and reduces their invasiveness. It is also a neuro-protective antioxidant.
Droves of activists across the country are hotly protesting the need for medical marijuana. They focus on the health benefits it has for patients who are battling chronic illnesses or are in need of pain management. Modern medical professionals do agree that there are benefits to using cannabis for medical needs. In fact, marijuana has been used for thousands of years for it’s medicinal purposes, dating back to ancient Chinese and Indian texts. The hotly debated topic today, of course, is whether marijuana has a place in modern day medicine considering all of the alternatives we currently have available to us.
Which segues into the debate over other prescription medications. Activists who are for medical marijuana claim that the side effects of using medical marijuana are greatly less when compared to using prescription painkillers, like opioids for instance. Considering prescription painkillers are the leading cause of both addiction and overdose death in the United States, that is a valid claim.
But nonetheless, many people throughout the world use marijuana to self-medicate without medical supervision, whether knowing it or not. This condition, known as “Cannabis Use Disorder”, affects about 30% of all users according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Because of the potentially positive psychological effects as well, many people may unknowingly be using the drug to combat naturally occurring conditions such as anxiety and depression that should otherwise be treated by a doctor with legal prescription medication. It is no less cause for concern then than a person who is self-medicating on prescription opioids. The difference is, of course, that prescription opioids can and do lead to lethal overdoses. Because cannabis is not associated with lethal overdoses, it’s simply not scrutinized the way prescription pain medications are.
Understanding Recreational Cannabis
Putting aside the debate over medical cannabis vs. prescription opioids, let’s focus on the difference between recreational marijuana. Recreational cannabis, which is considered the legal variety of marijuana grown in the United States, contains significant levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, as described earlier. This chemical compound is associated with feelings of euphoria, but can also cause adverse effects for users, especially if the potency is high – in some cases several times higher in some batches than others, or if the user is inexperienced. Like all drugs that are not administered under professional guidance, the tolerance of the user will affect how they react to the substance.
Since the effects of recreational cannabis depends on the user, it’s difficult or impossible to know exactly how someone will react to using the drug. Some users experience anxiety, fear, distrust, or panic. This may cause an acute psychosis, which includes hallucinations, delusions, and a loss of the sense of personal identity. In contrast to the trace amounts of THC found in medical marijuana, which is also prescribed with specific usage instructions by a physician, it is significantly safer to use medical marijuana in order to treat any medical condition.
In addition to the psychological effects that THC has on the mind, it also significantly impairs judgement, motor coordination and reaction time. A study conducted by the Road Safety Observatory found that there is a significant relationship between a person’s blood THC concentration and impaired driving. Their findings concluded that marijuana is the illicit drug most frequently found in the blood stream of drivers who have been involved in motor vehicle accidents, including fatal ones. Statistics aren’t yet available on the correlation between motor-vehicle accidents and those under the influence of “recreational marijuana”, however, considering their levels of THC are considered comparable, we can assume that the same risks apply.
But THC is not only temporarily dangerous to the user’s mind, many studies have found significant correlations to recreational cannabis use and permanent regressive brain development. A study from Northwestern University found that heavy users who began in adolescence had the potential do develop structural abnormalities in certain brain areas. Another study in New Zealand found that continued marijuana use starting in adolescence was associated with an average loss of 8 IQ points measured in mid-adulthood. Additional concerns include memory and cognition problems, risk of addiction and schizophrenia in young people.
Understanding “Recreational” Versus “Illegal” Cannabis
There is a very significant difference between legal, recreational marijuana and illegal “street weed”. Illegal marijuana is typically carried over the border into the United States by crime-ridden cartels and operations that are in no way regulated. These batches are commonly transported in importable conditions, are sprayed with toxic chemicals to ward off drug-sniffing canines, and can include things like lead, for instance, to taint the weight of the product. With the ever-changing climate of illicit drugs pouring into our country, there is no way to predict what may be in the product you are ingesting, making the street form of cannabis the most threatening of any variety.
Why Abstinence Is The Best Policy
Aside from the temporary euphoric effects that may be produced by marijuana use, the cons heavily outweigh the pros. For instance, the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 30 percent of users may develop some degree of problem use, which can lead to dependence and in severe cases takes the form of addiction. Most users move on from marijuana and use other drugs, considered a high-risk gateway drug especially since it’s effects are stimulated by combining cannabis with other drugs. Marijuana use has also been linked to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among teens. Users also report less academic and career success. For example, marijuana use is linked to a higher likelihood of dropping out of school. It is also linked to more job absences, accidents, and injuries. Research suggests that people who begin using marijuana before age 18 are 4 to 7 times more likely than adults to develop problem use. Even before birth, studies show that marijuana (and THC) ingestion in pregnancy is linked to increased risk of both brain and behavioral problems in babies.
While medical marijuana may be a good option if you are suffering from a debilitating, chronic disease, it is important to speak to your physician about all possible therapies. If you find yourself fixated on any form of cannabis, you may already be addicted to the chemical compounds found within. There are plenty of non-addictive options for you or a loved one considering pain-management medication. Understanding the difference between recreational, medical and illegal cannabis can help you understand the risk factors involved so you can make the right choices for your health and for your future.