Public Access to Medical Marijuana Linked to Increased Use
Medical marijuana is the popular term for natural forms of the addictive drug marijuana prescribed by doctors as treatment for a medical condition. Federal laws in America forbid the use of marijuana in this or any other context. Despite this fact, more than a third of U.S. states allow doctors to prescribe marijuana in certain circumstances. In a study scheduled for publication in 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two U.S. institutions used a large-scale survey conducted in California to determine if areas with widespread access to medical marijuana experience a general increase in marijuana intake.
Marijuana as Medicine?
In its natural state, marijuana contains two substances that have the potential to produce a therapeutic benefit in certain medical contexts: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). Proven therapeutic effects of THC include nausea relief and promotion of an improved appetite; the substance may also act as a painkiller, an anti-inflammatory and a muscle relaxer. Potential uses of CBD include pain and inflammation relief and reduction of the severity of epilepsy symptoms. While THC is primarily responsible for marijuana’s noted mind-altering effects, CBD does not produce mind alteration.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the prescription use of a THC-containing medication called dronabinol (Marinol), as well as the prescription use of a THC-like synthetic medication called nabilone (Cesamet). However, this agency hasn’t approved any form of natural marijuana as a medicine, and a federal statute called the Controlled Substances Act prohibits the sale or possession of marijuana.
Several factors help explain the legal distinction between natural marijuana and THC-containing or THC-like medications. For example, while THC-containing and THC-like medications are produced in pharmaceutical laboratories and have a known, consistent chemical composition, natural marijuana can vary widely in terms of its THC content. Practically speaking, this means that no doctor really knows how much THC he or she is prescribing to a patient, even when the quantity of marijuana consumed is known. The same problem hinders the widespread investigation of the therapeutic properties of natural marijuana by the research community. In addition, natural marijuana clearly functions as a source of cannabis abuse and cannabis addiction in a significant minority of all users (and as much as 50 percent of all habitual users).
As of 2014, 20 of the 50 U.S. states and the federal District of Columbia have laws that allow the prescription use of natural marijuana for certain ailments and in certain circumstances. In addition, some states have laws that permit the establishment of public medical marijuana dispensaries that function in a manner similar to traditional pharmacies.
Impact of Medical Marijuana Access
In the study slated for publication in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from UCLA and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation used a phone-based survey of the residents of 50 medium-sized California cities to explore the connection between public access to medical marijuana and the overall level of marijuana intake in the general population. A total of 8,853 people took part in this survey; each participant answered questions regarding his or her lifetime involvement in marijuana use, the amount of marijuana he or she consumed in the previous year and his or her frequency of marijuana intake in the previous year. The researchers used official city records and public information resources to determine the number of medical marijuana dispensaries and medical marijuana delivery services in each of the 50 cities under consideration. They combined this information with a measurement of the roadway miles in each city to determine the relative availability of medical marijuana in each city.
The researchers concluded that, in any given city included in the project, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries and delivery services present in the average roadway mile was linked to an increased amount of marijuana consumption in the general population, as well as to an increase in the frequency of marijuana intake in the general population. This finding held true even when the specific demographic conditions (age, gender, etc.) in each city were taken into account.
The study’s authors believe that city and state governments may be able to limit the general availability of marijuana by restricting the number and distribution of medical marijuana dispensaries in any given area. However, they note that the popularity of medical marijuana delivery services may at least partially counteract any restrictions on physical dispensary locations.