CBD, THC, cannabis, medical marijuana… For many people, all these words might add up to mean danger, illicit drugs and getting high. In truth, the landscape is changing. Due to increasing amounts of medical research which has been carried out over the last few years, we are now beginning to see the realities behind the cannabis plant and its compounds.
And this means that laws are changing, and we are beginning to be able to benefit from the research that is being carried out – although the medicinal benefits of cannabis have long since been celebrated by many cultures around the world.
One of the ways that things are changing for some people – mainly in the US – is through the increase in hospices who are carrying out palliative care, turning to medical marijuana.
The cannabis plant contains a number (over 100) compounds which scientists are investigating for their medicinal properties. The two main ones being cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). CBD and THC are both phyto cannabinoids – or cannabinoids which are produced by a plant.
When they are consumed by humans, they can interact with the endocannabinoid system, acting in a similar way to endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced naturally by the body).
The main difference between these two cannabinoids is that THC bonds with receptors in the endocannabinoid system, whereas CBD doesn’t. It is this process of bonding of the THC compound, however, that makes people high. This means that although CBD can have an effect on the brain, it doesn’t make you high.
Due to this interaction with the endocannabinoid system, medical researchers believe that CBD and THC can have significant medicinal properties, and this is why the medical world is so interested in the potentials that the compounds from cannabis can have for treating illnesses.
In the UK and many other countries, the law stipulates that CBD is legal to buy and use, but THC – due to the fact that it can make you high – is limited to having to be below 0.2%. This way there is no chance of you getting high. Producers have therefore created a specific strain of cannabis which has low THC, called hemp, and it is this which most CBD products are made of.
THC, however, shouldn’t be seen as the enemy. Although in high levels it can make you high, scientists believe that it can also have very strong medicinal qualities. Actually, when THC and CBD and taken together, the effect of them is much stronger (and research also shows that if THC is taken with CBD, it lessens the ‘high’).
The strains of the cannabis plant which have higher levels of THC are generally known as marijuana.
Medical marijuana is therefore made from cannabis with higher levels of THC and CBD in different ratios for its medicinal qualities. In the UK, you need a special license to produce and use medical marijuana.
Although there is plenty of research to suggest that CBD on its own can be useful to people for a number of health benefits, medical marijuana appears to be even more useful to some people, especially those in palliative or hospice care.
Whilst in the UK the law makes it difficult for hospices to help people with medical marijuana, there are some places in the USA, for example, where we are seeing an increase in people using it in hospices.
Although more research needs to be carried out, there is study as well as significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that medical marijuana could be helpful to a number of patients who are in palliative care.
One of the biggest culprits for pain is inflammation, and CBD has strong anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, research shows that THC can be very effective in dealing with neuropathic pain.  This means that pain can be attacked on two fronts, helping patients who are suffering from chronic pain or pain from cancer treatments, for example.
Another bonus to using cannabis-derived products for severe pain relief is that it might be able to help people reduce the number of opioids or NSAIDs that they are taking.
Opioids can not only be addictive, people can also build up a tolerance to them over time, and there is always the possibility of an overdose. There is no evidence to suggest addiction to medical marijuana, or people building up anything but a small tolerance and no-one has ever died from a medical marijuana overdose. And of course, it is completely natural.
NSAIDs are a form of anti-inflammatory medication, such as Ibuprofen. However, research suggests that these medicines can be harmful to the body if used in the long term, and it is not recommended to use them continuously, for long periods of time. Medical marijuana doesn’t have these dangers of long term use and could, therefore, be a viable option to replace NSAIDs.
Nausea is a big problem for people who are in hospices as many of them are taking cocktails of drugs which include nausea as a prominent side effect. This is very common for people with cancer who are having chemotherapy to suffer debilitating nausea.
Medical marijuana can be very effective in helping people to deal with nausea, as shown by recent research .
It can also be used to help to stimulate the appetite – which can be important for some people in hospice care.
It is also unsurprising to hear that anxiety and sleep problems are also typical for those who are in hospice care. The psychological burden of dealing with a diagnosis which can be life-threatening is massive and this often manifests itself in low mood, anxiety and insomnia.
CBD and THC have strong anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects  which can help people to come to terms with their illnesses. They can also help people to sleep and improve their quality of sleep  which is important for a patient’s quality of life, mental health and general energy levels.
When you say the words ‘medical marijuana’, most people think that it means that you would have to smoke it. In fact, there are a number of other ways that it can be taken which are healthier and easier than smoking. Most people who are in hospice care will take their medical marijuana in a capsule form. This can be swallowed along with any medication that the patient is taking, quickly and easily and with pinpoint accuracy of the dosage.
It is also worth noting that although medical marijuana, by definition will have THC in it, it is unlikely that patients will get high. This is because the ratios between THC and CBD are carefully calculated to give the best effect for the patient – levels and ratios which are unique to them.
There are some places in the USA where THC is legal, and medical marijuana can be available to those who need it. Of course, this is still bound by medical research, but from the signs that we are seeing about its medicinal properties, it is no surprise that medical marijuana is being increasingly used in palliative and hospice care.
For people who are terminally ill or suffering greatly from serious medical conditions, it seems only right that we do everything in our power to improve their lives. At the moment, in the UK, access to medical marijuana is extremely limited, but it is hoped that in a short amount of time, we will be able to see this potentially life-changing plant get to those who need it the most.