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Fat Chance for Mary Jane: Marijuana is Not a Suitable Treatment for Glaucoma

Fat Chance for Mary Jane: Marijuana is Not a Suitable Treatment for Glaucoma


Marijuana has been valued as a medicine used to treat a variety of conditions for more than 4,700 years. In fact, medical marijuana did not decline in use in Western cultures until the 1850s, and it was not made illegal to consume marijuana in the United States until 1937.

Since 1996, 12 states have legalized the controlled use of marijuana to treat a variety of ailments, ranging from nausea, to anxiety, to chronic pain. In states where medical marijuana is legal, patients suffering from all types of illnesses, as well as marijuana smokers who just want to be “legal,” have scrambled to prove that their affliction is, in fact, treatable with smoked marijuana.

But while marijuana may be an effective treatment for certain conditions, research has shown that it is not the best solution for patients who suffer from glaucoma.

The Facts on Medical Marijuana

The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is a hotly debated topic in American politics. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans, up to 70 percent, are in favor of legalizing the drug for medical use, yet the official U.S. government position on the issue is that marijuana has “no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.”

Although several states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, users may still be held criminally accountable by federal law. In California, for example, patients who qualify for medical marijuana use are legally permitted to use, possess, and cultivate marijuana. However, the federal government can still prosecute “legal” users for any of these activities.

To qualify for a medical marijuana identification card, patients must have a diagnosis from a licensed physician for one of the ailments for which marijuana has been deemed an acceptable treatment. Studies show that marijuana provides effective relief for appetite loss, nausea, spasticity, and certain types of pain, all symptoms associated with a range of conditions. Recipients of medical marijuana clearance may suffer from any one of the following:

  • AIDS
  • Cancer
  • Migraines
  • Arthritis
  • Amputations
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Anorexia
  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple sclerosis

While glaucoma does fall on the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s list entitled “Descriptions of Allowable Conditions under State Medical Marijuana Laws”, studies have shown that marijuana is not the best treatment for the reduction of intraocular pressure associated with this disease.

What is Glaucoma?

The human eyeball is filled with pressurized fluid, which helps the eyeball maintain its spherical shape. In patients who suffer from glaucoma, the channels through which this fluid flows become blocked, causing a gradual increase in intraocular pressure. The results of this increase in pressure can cause damage to the optic nerve and eventual loss of vision if the condition goes untreated. According to the World Health Organization, glaucoma is the world’s second most prevalent cause of blindness.

How is Glaucoma Treated?

Glaucoma is a chronic condition for which there is currently no cure. Nerve damage and the loss of vision may be stopped with medications and surgery, but lost vision can never be regained. Treatments for glaucoma include surgery and medications, which can be taken orally or applied directly into the eye. These treatments work by either increasing drainage of intraocular fluid out of the eye or decreasing production of these fluids.

Is Marijuana a Suitable Treatment for Glaucoma?

Many medical professionals, patients, and lawmakers argue that smoked marijuana may be a suitable treatment for patients who suffer from glaucoma. While the consumption of marijuana does result in lowering of intraocular pressure, the side effects of marijuana use make this a less-than-perfect treatment, especially when compared to other, equally beneficial medications.

The adverse health effects of smoking marijuana can lead to an increased heart rate and a decrease in blood pressure. This can constrict blood supply to the optical nerve and have damaging effects on the patient’s vision.

Furthermore, the amount of marijuana a patient needs to consume to significantly lower intraocular pressure is excessive—some researchers estimate it would take up to twelve joints a day to achieve the desired effect. This level of consumption would make normal functions such as driving, working, and even reproducing very difficult for patients.

Excessive consumption of marijuana can also lead to emphysema-like damage to the lungs, birth defects, and dependency.

Currently, the only federally approved form of marijuana for medicinal use comes in the form of a pill called Marinol®, which contains synthetic THC (the active ingredient in marijuana). Although Marinol® has proven highly effective as an anti-emetic used to treat nausea in patients with AIDS or those undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the positive effects of marijuana on glaucoma symptoms are only achieved when the drug is inhaled. Thus, Marinol® has not been found to be an effective treatment for patients with glaucoma.

As a result of studies indicating the serious side effects that are the result of smoking marijuana and the production of a number of highly effective, safe drugs used to reduce intraocular pressure, the National Eye Institute is currently not conducting any research on the benefits of marijuana for the treatment of glaucoma.

The Grass is always Greener…

Despite overwhelming medical evidence that marijuana is not an effective treatment for glaucoma, the disease still makes it to the list of ailments for which the herbal remedy may be prescribed. So, while pot may not be the ideal solution for those of you who suffer (or claim to suffer) from this debilitating disease, in 12 states you are still free to puff the green stuff, all in the name of science.

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