Yet even after its reposing as a staple of the counter culture, cannabis reemerged as a balm to people suffering from AIDS in 1980s San Francisco, long before the pharmaceutical industry developed viable treatments for HIV. Approved by voters in 1996, California’s prop 215 made it legal for people to experiment with using cannabis medicinally, and eventually even kids with recurring seizures began being treated with extracts and tinctures. (These efforts ultimately spurred the creation of the first FDA approved, federally legal, cannabis-derived medication: Epidolex, used for seizures.)
Today, cannabis is still being thoroughly investigated by both the public and the scientific community. More ongoing studies than ever are breaking down how cannabis might not only calm symptoms, but actually treat physical conditions like chronic pain, cancer, and potentially even psychological disorders like anxiety and PTSD.
If you are dealing with a medical or psychological condition painful or stressful, you could potentially benefit from medical cannabis, and we are going to shed some more light on what that looks like in the real world.
There are countless reasons why someone might turn to cannabis for medicinal use. For one thing, it’s widely seen as pretty safe for most users. Certainly it carries far fewer and less serious risks than opioids and some other more modern pharmaceutical treatments for pain—overdose, addiction, and gastrointestinal upset among them.
Pain is part of the human condition, of course, but treating it with cannabis can help to mitigate its effects on your life. Cannabis interacts with pain receptors all over the body to dull those signals, and it’s even being studied for an anti-inflammatory effects that could rival those of OTC medications (not to mention a host of other medical benefits).
Similarly, mental health is complex, nuanced, and dynamic, and can shift incredibly with changes to your environment or due to the effects of things you take into your body—whether that means a prescribed mood stabilizer of a hit from a cannabis vape. Many people once written off as “stoners” were actually self-medicating for conditions as widely encompassing as ADHD, autism, OCD, PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
If this all sounds like very inexact science, that’s because it is—for years, federal drug laws have made studying cannabis a challenge. As laws begin to loosen and launching scientific studies becomes increasingly feasible, researchers are looking forward to nailing down a complete rundown of why and how cannabinoids and the other chemicals in weed can be put to use to ease suffering and treat disease.
All of that said, cannabis is very much being used medicinally now. If this is a treatment area you want to explore, here is the right way to go about it.
We talked with Dr. Erik C. Smith of Veriheal, a portal linking patients seeking medical access with reputable doctors who are cannabis fluent, about how patients can begin to incorporate medicinal cannabis into their treatment regimes (keeping in mind that, depending on the state you live in, doing so many require you to jump through several legal hoops first).
Dr. Smith uses what he calls the “three S’s”— support, shop smart, and slow— to get people on the right track. To get support, your first stop is to locate a reputable dispensary. Allow the patient advocates or budtenders there to share their wealth of knowledge with you and help you formulate a plan that will support your needs. Even if recreational cannabis is legal in your state, you might consider shopping at a dispensary targeted toward medical use patients, many of which (again, depending on state law) may be required to have a licensed pharmacist on staff.
“I always encourage patients to sit down and go over as many products as possible with the clinicians,” Smith says. “All cannabis products are sealed and it’s difficult from the packaging to understand exactly how to use the products, or even open them.”
The next step, Dr.Smith notes, is shopping smart: “Purchase a few products at a time. Everyone responds to cannabis differently, and thus shopping to sample a few products allows most patients to establish a better idea of what works for them.”
Once you have cannabis in hand, you may feel the urge to hit a problem with everything you’ve got, but if you are not a regular user, you might not appreciate the powerful high one can get from consuming too much weed. Smith advises you “Go low and slow... One can easily [start at] at the lowest dose and then increase over time for efficacy.”
When we previously covered microdosing cannabis, we talked about the major differences between big and small doses of THC, the primary cannabinoid in medical cannabis, and the one that produces its intoxicating effects. Namely, what products you use and how you use them will impact that “high.” For best results, you want to benefit from what the whole plant has to offer—its dozens of phytochemicals, including non-THC cannabinoids, terpenes, phenols, and others not yet quantified.
Strains of cannabis with high CBD and low THC are vital for anyone who just isn’t into being high, but wants to test weed’s therapeutic benefits. According to Dr.Smith, “THC content is important, however chemovars (what we know as strains) with varying ratios of CBD:THC are likely the most important component of the plant’s medicinal properties. Strains rich in CBD can have greater therapeutic effect while minimizing the psychoactive effects of THC. I personally like 1:1 THC:CBD chemovars, as I can achieve a lot of relief [with them], and calm anxiety.”
Your intake method is just as important to getting the desired effect. Light dose seekers can go for vapes, topicals, and precise tinctures or edibles, while a need for heavier doses calls for combustion via dabs, joints, and pipes or bongs—but these users can also reach for strong edibles and more powerful vaporizers, like a Volcano or Pax.
No matter the size of the dose, consider deploying one of Dr.Smith’s excellent tips: “Use both an inhalation and oral method for most conditions. I like topical for skin conditions and chronic joint pain, but a two-method delivery system is ideal.”
A systemic, internal dose combined with a fast-acting inhaled dose can rapidly kickstart relief for some people, no matter the cannabinoid involved or the amount of milligrams consumed. This effect stems from the slower starting but longer acting nature of consumables that are processed by the digestive system, like beverages and edibles, which will just be getting started as the rapid-acting but more temporary effects of vaped or smoked cannabis begin to fade.
Two major considerations for anyone with access to medical cannabis are affordability and tolerance. As with many other drugs, you can develop a tolerance to cannabis, meaning you’ll eventually require an increased dosage to get the necessary relief. This can compound into un-affordability if you’re not careful.
Avoiding this problem can be surprisingly easy, and Eric Leslie, CMO and co-owner of Cheeba Chews, a medical and recreational cannabis company with a 10-year history, thinks it starts with having accurate labeling. While consuming combustible cannabis can be a guesstimate even with lab testing, properly vetted edibles allow a bit more precision.
“Third-party testing results printed directly on the packaging are critical for new medical patients in learning their optimal dose,” Leslie tells Lifehacker. “Also, look for cannabinoid diversification: THC is a powerful component of the cannabis plant, but the entourage effect is real— the effects of THC on body and mind can be enhanced with the inclusion of other cannabinoids like CBD, CBG, CBN, and CBC, to name a few.”
Like many edibles, those made by Cheeba Chews have a reputation for being incredibly strong in a small package—but that can be a benefit, as edibles can be precisely divided into pieces if a big dose isn’t what you want, or not.
“Patients with a higher cannabinoid tolerance seek out medical cannabis for a variety of reasons, just as those with a lower tolerance,” Leslie says. “One of the unique qualities of a Cheeba Chew is how consistently we can infuse both a small amount and large volume of cannabis oil into a bite-sized piece of taffy. The taffy recipe we’ve perfected can hold a variety of dosages.”
No matter if you’re ready to dab the pain away or nibble the same fruit chew for a fortnight, medical cannabis can be a viable treatment for many conditions, provided you live in one of the states that allows it. Yet access to cannabis for medical reasons is becoming ever-more prevalent even in conservative areas of the United States. The door often cracks open first for those with one of a limited number of disabilities or severe conditions, then wiggles a little wider to let in those with a broader range of health issues.
In a future where cannabis may not be federally classified as a dangerous Schedule 1 drug, individualized cannabis treatments could become widespread. For now, a bit of trial and error—and a medical use card—might be all you need to begin feeling better every day.