Medically Reviewed by
Jason Crawford

Article Last Updated on January 19, 2023

The marijuana plant has a long-standing history with humans because it has been used as both a recreational substance and for medical treatment for thousands of years. Our ancestors were familiar with the unique effects of marijuana and frequently used it even though they didn’t know the science behind it.

Fast forward to the present, the medical use of marijuana is being increasingly recognized which allows alternative solutions to some conventional treatments that don’t work for everyone. Many states now have medical marijuana programs where those who qualify can get the help they need for their medical issues.

In this article, we cover all about medical marijuana and which conditions it can treat, as well as the current medical marijuana laws in the U.S.

The Components of the Marijuana Plant

The marijuana plant contains hundreds of chemical components that make it unique, among which cannabinoids are the most important ones. Cannabinoids are the active ingredients that produce the effects marijuana is known for and each of them produces a different effect.

THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) are the two most studied cannabinoids and the most important ones. THC is the molecule that produces intense feelings of euphoria, otherwise known as being high, while CBD isn’t psychoactive, but has therapeutic properties.

The cannabinoids are very similar to a group of molecules that the human body naturally produces called endocannabinoids, and they are involved in metabolic processes like memory, appetite, immune response, etc. 

When you consume cannabis, the cannabinoids attach to the cannabinoid receptors in the body and they modify their function. This is how the effects of cannabis are felt throughout the body.

What Is Medical Cannabis and How Is It Different From Recreational Use of Cannabis?

Medical cannabis refers to the use of the whole cannabis plant or its components to alleviate the symptoms of different medical conditions. Its use is usually recommended or prescribed by a healthcare provider who is licensed for treatment with medical marijuana.

On the other hand, recreational marijuana refers to the use of marijuana purely for relaxation purposes and the psychoactive effects that it produces, rather than for the treatment of a medical condition. To use marijuana recreationally, you don’t need a referral from a medical professional.  

What Are the Medical Benefits of Cannabis?

So far, we know that cannabis produces a number of health effects. It has anti-anxiety properties and can help with sleep problems. Its anti-inflammatory effects can help with chronic pain relief and muscle spasticity. It can also relieve nausea and stimulate appetite. Cannabis can also be used to help with opioid and alcohol addiction as a harm reduction substitute.

You Can Find Medical Cannabis In Many Forms

Medical cannabis is available in many forms. You can smoke it or vape it, but it’s also available in the form of edibles, capsules, lozenges, tinctures, oils, and topicals for local pain relief. 

These cannabis products can contain only one cannabinoid, most commonly CBD, derived from the industrial hemp plant (Cannabis sativa L.). However, they can also be infused with both THC and CBD in different ratios.

Medical Cannabis as Prescription Medicine

Medical marijuana use isn’t regulated by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) like prescription drugs are. However, there are four cannabis-derived medicines that have been approved by the FDA. 

One of them is Epidiolex, a CBD-based liquid medication intended for the treatment of two severe forms of childhood epilepsy (Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome).

Dronabinol (Marinol) and Nabilone (Cesamet) are THC-based medications in pill form that are given to patients undergoing chemotherapy to treat nausea and to stimulate appetite in HIV/AIDS patients with wasting syndrome in order to prevent weight loss.

Additionally, Nabiximols (Sativex) is a mouth spray developed for the treatment of muscle spasms and neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis. It’s currently only available in the United Kingdom, Canada, and several European countries.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these isolated forms of cannabis and cannabinoids may be more therapeutically effective than using the whole plant because they are purified forms of cannabis.

Medical Cannabis Laws in the U.S.

The legalization of marijuana has been a long road, but thankfully, there is constant progress. Under federal law, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, however, its legality varies under state law where in some states it’s fully legal, while in others it’s only legal for medical use. 

Currently, the medical use of cannabis is legal in 39 states and the District of Columbia, while Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, and Wisconsin have legalized only the use of CBD oil. You can find the full updated list of states here.

Medical marijuana can be used to treat the symptoms of numerous conditions. In states where medical marijuana is legal, you can obtain a medical marijuana card. It’s an identification card issued by the state which enables you to buy marijuana from a dispensary or cultivate it for medical purposes, with the recommendation or prescription of a medical professional.

Some Common Qualifying Conditions for a Medical Marijuana Card

Qualifying conditions are the medical conditions that make you eligible for a medical marijuana card. Each state has a varying list of qualifying conditions, however, there are some that are common for most states.

  • Epilepsy and seizure disorders;
  • Muscle spasms related to multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia;
  • Irritable bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis;
  • Glaucoma;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
  • Anxiety disorders;
  • Nausea;
  • Chronic pain.

Bottom Line

Marijuana has been used for many years throughout human history and only in recent decades are we finding out more about its effects. Following the legalization, many states in the US have developed medical marijuana programs that make you legally eligible for a medical marijuana prescription. There are many qualifying symptoms for a medical marijuana card, but they will vary from state to state.

Additional Sources

Voth E. A. (2001). Guidelines for prescribing medical marijuana. The Western journal of medicine, 175(5), 305–306. https://doi.org/10.1136/ewjm.175.5.305

NIDA. 2021, April 13. Is marijuana safe and effective as medicine?. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-safe-effective-medicine on 2021, April 27

A passionate advocate for the benefits of cannabis. Fraser Horton, who has a background in botany and a strong love of nature, has spent years researching how cannabis affects the body and mind. He established Leaf Nation in 2020, where he has devoted himself to educating people about the legalisation of marijuana and its safe and responsible use. Fraser is committed to highlighting cannabis’ potential for improving wellness and working to dispel the stigma associated with its use.


The information presented on this page is provided as a public service to aid in education and is derived from sources believed to be reliable. Readers are responsible for making their own assessment of the topics discussed here. In no event shall Leaf Nation be held reliable for any injury, loss or damage that could happen if using or abusing drugs.