Now legal in 33 states, more and more Americans are familiar with medical marijuana, which can offer relief to people struggling with everything from multiple sclerosis to inflammatory bowel disease. Research on the endocannabinoid system — a system of receptors present throughout the body which plays a key role in the central nervous system and other bodily processes, helping the body maintain homeostasis — has helped scientists and medical professionals develop a whole new array of ways to utilize cannabis; a trip to a dispensary today would give you access not just to medical marijuana to be smoked, but topical cannabis solutions, edibles, and other new methods designed specifically with medical users in mind.
Ultimately, that's a decision you can only make for yourself (ideally with the help of a respectful medical professional). Shannen Barnett, a nurse and the founder of medical cannabis company Sana Sana Formulas, tells Bustle that everyone's endocannabinoid system "is individual and everyone has different responses to cannabis, period, regardless of age, sex, weight, or diagnosis" — so it's tough to make any across-the-board recommendations for how much cannabis a person should use to treat their ailment, or how they should take it.
Potential cannabis users should also stay aware of dosing guidelines or suggested doses on packaging. "When you go to the doctor and you're getting prescribed a medication, you're not getting prescribed a...dose that is for you as an individual," says Barnett. Rather, "this is a dose based off of generalized dosing guidelines for a population." The same is true in medical cannabis doses — so know that going in.
With this in mind, Barnett suggests that new users might want to experiment with micro-dosing, in order to get a true understanding of their medical cannabis needs, and maintain a journal tracking their results: note the size of the doses you're taking, what times of day you're taking them, and how they make you feel. This kind of measured approach, says Barnett, is "the only way to really know how it's going to work for you. And it allows you to do it without having any negative experience — I call it the 'I wish I could un-take it moment' many people have had, when they come to cannabis."
To get your research started, here is an overview of a few of the medical cannabis methods available.
A 2007 University of California study found that vaporizing marijuana, rather than smoking, minimized the amount of harmful toxins consumed.
While Barnett feels that inhaled cannabis makes more sense as a recreational rather than medicinal option, she notes that you can still micro-dose when using inhaled cannabis — "you can just take smaller hits."
Edibles — candies, baked goods, or other foods infused with marijuana. appeal to many new medical marijuana users, as they seem familiar and non-threatening (who doesn't love a cookie?). But Barnett urges caution: users "need to be careful, because everyone metabolizes it differently. Edibles aren't going to kick in at the same time for everyone. Some people, they kick in right away, other people, it doesn't happen until they go to dinner and all of a sudden they're high."
Typically, it takes more time for the THC in edibles to hit the bloodstream compared to smoked marijuana, so giving your dose time to be fully metabolized before you try any more is key.
And be aware that even though they contain medical cannabis, edibles also contain food ingredients — so if you have a food allergy, or should not consume sugar or artificial sweeteners, make sure to look out for them while choosing edibles.
According to some research, topical ointments and creams can potentially help relieve the symptoms of ailments like arthritis and eczema without any of the psychoactive components one might experience with smoking or edibles. In fact, they're a favorite way to use cannabis to decrease inflammation. "The best way to consume the anti-inflammatories properties of cannabis is not going to be inhaling them," says Barnett. "It is probably going to be better if it's ingested or used topically."
One of the newest medical cannabis products on the market, cannabis capsules typically contain oils of varying levels of potency. Users can swallow them, or cut them open to apply topically.
The Bottom Line
Barnett's main advice for beginners has less to do with utilizing any particular method than it does doing your own research to ensure product quality: "A lot of [companies producing medical cannabis products] will boast that their lab testing and the third party tested, [but] just saying it doesn't make it true." Rather than just trusting branding, "you want to actually see those results," and check for more than just potency — Barnett recommends checking for tests to make sure that the batch is not full of pesticides or heavy metals. "You want to actually see that it's been tested for multiple things and that it has a date and a batch number."
She also notes that when it comes to medical cannabis, "there's different strains — that's like different brand names for medications. And the strain is like its own profile." She recommends keeping notes on which strains you have used in your journal as well, so that you can keep on top of your specific reactions to them.
And in the end, the best way to find what works for you is with slow, controlled experimentation. "For the general person," says Barnett, "the best course is to start with one thing, implement it in the smallest dose possible and adjust the frequency of dosing before [you are] adjusting the dose size." It will allow you to gauge your response, and "be able to continue living [your] life without really any interruption.
This post was originally published on September 21, 2015. It was updated on July 3, 2019.
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