• Medicinal cannabis and medical cannabis are terms often used interchangeably to refer to cannabis-derived products prescribed to relieve symptoms of medical conditions
  • Cannabis sativa plants contain active compounds like cannabidiol (CBD) and delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Studies have shown that physician-recommended use of medical cannabis may help treat chronic pains, increase appetite, and improve moods and mental dispositions(1).
  • The U.S. FDA has approved Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, to treat seizures linked to Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes(2). Also approved are synthetic cannabinoids dronabinol and nabilone used to treat nausea and vomiting linked to chemotherapy(3)
  • As of 2022, 37 U.S.states have allowed the use of medical cannabis with different degrees of regulations(4). Still, medicinal cannabis or medical cannabis use requires direct doctor supervision, and over-the-counter purchases are prohibited by federal law.

What Is Medicinal Cannabis?

The term medicinal cannabis is generally used when describing cannabis prescribed to relieve symptoms of a medical condition. 

Medicinal cannabis or medicinal marijuana are terms used interchangeably with medical cannabis or medical marijuana in the U.S. 

For example, a 2017 study covering the pharmacology and history of medicinal cannabis used the terms medical cannabis, medicinal cannabis, and medical cannabinoids to refer to cannabis utilization to help manage or alleviate symptoms of medical conditions(5).

However, dictionary definitions of the terms medicinal and medical differ. 

Merriam-Webster defines medicinal as properties used to treat diseases or relieve pain(6). Medical(7), on the other hand, pertains to the practice of medicine and discussions about drugs and medications.

Another issue with understanding terminologies is using the terms cannabis and marijuana. While both terms refer to the plant Cannabis sativa, they are not the same. 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health defines cannabis as all products derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Meanwhile, marijuana refers to parts and products derived from the same plant with high amounts of THC(8)

Types and Forms of Medical Cannabis

Three main types and forms of medicinal cannabis are available on the market(9)

  1. Pharmaceutical cannabis – Organizations such as Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)  approve these types. Examples are nabiximols (Sativex) and dronabinol.
  2. Controlled and standardized herbal cannabis – These are controlled and standardized plant products produced by countries like the Netherlands. 
  3. Unregulated and illegal herbal cannabis – These plant products are not inspected for cannabinoid concentration levels and have no health safety inspections and protocols in the United States.

Uses of Medicinal Cannabis: How Does Medicinal Cannabis Help People?

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), medical cannabis may help with chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced vomiting and nausea, muscle spasms (spasticity), and multiple sclerosis pain(10).  

Claims from advocates also include the possible medical use of cannabis to help with medical conditions such as anxiety and depression(11)


Glaucoma is a frequently cited reason for using medical marijuana, indicating that the federal government granted permission for compassionate marijuana use. However, further studies are needed(12)

While marijuana-based medicines may help lower intraocular pressure (IOP), their drawbacks outweigh their benefits.


Studies showed that an unbalanced endocannabinoid system may cause anorexia and that cannabinoid use may restore its functions. The data came from clinical studies using rodent models of activity-based anorexia similar to human conditions(13)

Chronic pain

Clinical data provides possible analgesic uses of medical cannabis. A study focused on this subject showed that topical and vaporizing methods may relieve patients suffering from neuropathic pain(14).  

A 2020 study from the Journal of Anesthesia showed that cannabis-based pain treatments may offer better results than opioids and their side effects, especially in palliative or end-of-life health care situations(15)

Crohn’s disease

Studies by Crohn’s disease and colitis specialists show some positive results for cannabidiol Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disorder(16)

However, any use of cannabis-based products for treatment should still fall under clinical trials and always be under medical supervision. 

Muscular Conditions, Disorders, and Illnesses

Medical use of cannabis and its synthetic derivatives have shown great potential in treating mental conditions and illnesses(17). Cannabinoids have shown positive results when used for mental impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, and schizophrenia.

Muscular diseases and conditions respond favorably to medical cannabis. A study on multiple sclerosis (MS) patients with spasticity showed promise for people with MS looking for alternative therapies and complementary remedies such as cannabis(18).

Medical Precautions of Medicinal Cannabis

Despite the rising therapeutic claims for medical cannabis use, there are cases where cannabis use is not advised. 

Pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with serious medical ailments such as heart, lung, kidney, and liver disease, and people diagnosed with mental illness and psychosis should avoid using cannabis(19)

People with the conditions mentioned above should seek advice from medical experts before opting for cannabis or marijuana use. Furthermore, people taking other medication should consult their physician before contemplating cannabis use. 

Is Medicinal Cannabis Available as Prescription Medicine?

Although state laws may differ in opinion towards medical cannabis and marijuana, federal restrictions prohibit doctors, clinicians, and caregivers from prescribing cannabis or marijuana as a treatment(20)

Licensed doctors and hospital practitioners have to be registered to certify seriously ill patients for state medicinal cannabis programs. 

California was the first state to permit legal access to and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes under doctor supervision with the enactment of the Compassionate Use Act in 1996.

How to Get Medical Marijuana

Programs like the Special Access Scheme for Medical Cannabis provide health care practitioners access to medical cannabis and purchase marijuana from a dispensary. 

For example, doctors in Australia can apply to the TGA for SAS and prescribe patients to medical trials to access regulated drugs such as cannabis-based products(21)

There are similar cannabis programs in the U.S., where physicians can access restricted medical products that the FDA does not yet approve. Regulations vary in the different states.

How to Take Medicinal Cannabis

U.S. federal law strictly prohibits the use of marijuana. Nevertheless, legislation is slowly moving toward easing restrictions, especially on marijuana or cannabis when used for medical purposes.

Users of cannabinoid-based products should consult their health care providers and get proper medical supervision. All FDA-approved cannabis-based products currently require a prescription. 

Side Effects of Medicinal Cannabis

Adverse effects of medical cannabinoid use include dizziness, vomiting, relapse of multiple sclerosis, and urinary tract infections(22).

It is best to consult doctors whenever unwanted health effects of cannabis occur. Also, before use, a recommendation from a doctor is necessary before purchasing. 

Is Medicinal Cannabis Safe?

Many studies and research data show that medical cannabis and marijuana use may be safe if medically supervised and regulated. Though cannabis research is still limited, it is best always to seek doctors’ advice.

Society’s perception of marijuana is still divided, and many are not yet ready to accept the medicinal value of such a controversial plant. However, continued research and data on the positive uses of cannabis may increase. 

Smoking cannabis or marijuana can cause respiratory and memory problems after long-term use. Furthermore, smoking marijuana may cause cardiovascular problems, including hypertension(23).

Although vaping is an optional use for administering cannabis, there is a medical consensus that smoking cannabis may harm health. 

According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, unwanted side effects include dizziness, difficulty concentrating, loss of balance, drowsiness, and problems with memory(24).

However, under special schemes like that of the TGA, for example, some forms of medicinal cannabis are available to patients on a case-by-case basis. Recently, under this scheme, medical practitioners can prescribe cannabis-based medicines to their patients under certain conditions(25).

The Legality of Medicinal Cannabis

Marijuana legality is controversial, especially in the U.S., where opinions are divided. However, despite opposing viewpoints in many state legislatures, federal law restricts the use, sale, and promotion of marijuana(26). 

Thirty-seven U.S. states have allowed the use of medical cannabis or marijuana(27). The shift in legislation in the U.S. has opened the gate for medical marijuana laws and research into the potential benefits of using cannabis medically.

Which U.S. States Allows Medicinal Cannabis?

The National Conference of State Legislatures lists U.S. states that allow medical cannabis in some states(28). 

Data from February 2022 show that 37 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia allow the medical use of cannabis products(29).

As of May 2022, 19 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia have applied regulations for the nonmedical use of cannabis in adults(30). Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota are examples of those states.

Has FDA Approved the Use of Medicinal Cannabis?

Under U.S. federal law, marijuana remains a Schedule I medication(31). Marijuana or cannabis is considered a substance with a high abuse or addiction rate and no accepted or FDA-approved medical use(32)

However, within regulation, states like California or Colorado allow people to own and use medical cannabis for medical and recreational use(33).

The FDA and Department of Health have approved four cannabis-based products in the U.S(34).

1. Epidiolex, a cannabis-based drug used to treat seizures linked to severe forms of epilepsy like Dravet syndrome or Lennox-Gastaut syndrome(35).

2. Marinol (dronabinol)(36) and Syndros (dronabinol)(37) are synthetic cannabis-related drugs to treat nausea and vomiting.

In addition, at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, weight loss has been common among patients. Dronabinol may help manage HIV wasting syndrome.

3. Cesamet (nabilone) is a synthetic cannabis-related drug to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting(38).

What Is Hemp Used For Medically?

Hemp, a species of Cannabis sativa, has 0.3% or lower levels of THC, which is lower than that of marijuana(39). Hemp is a good source of CBD oil and hempseed oil (extracted from the hemp plant’s seeds). 

Hemp CBD is much used because of the low levels of THC, while hempseed oil is rich in amino acids, unsaturated fats, and antioxidants(40).

Hemp can be a source of cannabidiol or CBD, the main ingredient for various cannabis-based products purported to possess therapeutic benefits

What Are Cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are extracted from the cannabis plant. Researchers currently identify more than 100 different cannabinoids(41). Cannabinoids can come in phytocannabinoids (natural plant cannabinoids) and synthetic cannabinoids.

Types of Cannabinoids

According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the three types of cannabinoids are recreational, medicinal, and synthetic.

Meanwhile, two well-known cannabinoids have become the center of many studies, research, and issues.

  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the significant ingredients in cannabis that has shown no adverse effects similar to substance abuse, as reported by the World Health Organization(42)
  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the prominent psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis. THC is currently not approved nor evaluated by FDA for safe use(43)

The Endocannabinoid System

The Endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of transmitters and cannabinoid receptors that ensures the body’s well-being. The ECS controls and regulates body functions through CB1 and CB2 receptors(44)

CB1 receptors in the brain monitor body functions such as temperature, alertness, and hunger. CB2 receptors in the immune tissues are critical to helping control immune functioning(45).

  1. Cannabinoids and Pain: New Insights From Old Molecules
  2. FDA Approves First Drug Comprised of an Active Ingredient Derived from Marijuana to Treat Rare, Severe Forms of Epilepsy
  3. FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products, Including Cannabidiol (CBD) https://www.fda.gov/news-events/public-health-focus/fda-regulation-cannabis-and-cannabis-derived-products-including-cannabidiol-cbd
  4. State Medical Cannabis Laws
  5. Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting
  6. Definition of medicinal
  7. Definition of medical
  8. Cannabis (Marijuana) and Cannabinoids: What You Need To Know
  9. What is medicinal cannabis?
  10. Medical Cannabis
  11. Ibid.
  13. Cannabinoid CB 1 /CB 2 receptor agonists attenuate hyperactivity and body weight loss in a rat model of activity-based anorexia
  14. Medical Cannabis for Neuropathic Pain
  15. Medical cannabis for chronic pain: can it make a difference in pain management?
  16. Oral CBD-rich Cannabis Induces Clinical but Not Endoscopic Response in Patients with Crohn’s Disease, a Randomised Controlled Trial
  17. Cannabinoids for the treatment of mental disorders and symptoms of mental disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis
  18. Effects of non-euphoric plant cannabinoids on muscle quality and performance of dystrophic mdx mice
  19. Who Should Avoid Using Cannabis?
  20. Medicinal Cannabis: History, Pharmacology, And Implications for the Acute Care Setting
  21. How to get medicinal cannabis
  22. Adverse effects of medical cannabinoids: a systematic review
  23. Marijuana
  24. Medicinal Cannabis
  25. Ibid.
  26. Medical Marijuana and Marijuana Legalization
  27. State Medical Cannabis Laws
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. The Federal Controlled Substances Act: Schedules and Pharmacy Registration
  32. Schedule I drug
  33. Laws about marijuana use
  34. FDA Regulation of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products, Including Cannabidiol (CBD)
  35. Ibid.
  37. Syndros (dronabinol) Oral Solution
  38. FDA and Cannabis: Research and Drug Approval Process
  39. CBD, marijuana and hemp: What is the difference among these cannabis products, and which are legal?
  40. A Review of Hemp as Food and Nutritional Supplement
  41. Pharmacology of Medical Cannabis
  42. Cannabidiol (CBD): What we know and what we don’t
  43. 5 Things to Know about Delta-8 Tetrahydrocannabinol – Delta-8 THC
  44. The endocannabinoid system: Essential and mysterious –
  45. The endocannabinoid system: Essential and mysterious –
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