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Alternatives to Smoking Medicinal Marijuana

What is the healthiest way to use medicinal marijuana?

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Updated August 16, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Medicinal marijuana is now legal in more than a dozen U.S. states, and others may soon follow. Medical marijuana involves use of the drug, secured from legal vendors, in a doctor-prescribed way for specific purposes. Medical use of marijuana can help relieve symptoms such as pain, glaucoma, migraine headaches, nausea, and weight loss.

Marijuana is, of course, not without its side effects. For example, conventional marijuana may contain harmful fungus and pesticides, which can be especially dangerous for patients with compromised immune systems. But the fact that marijuana is usually smoked -- either in cigarette form, in tobacco pipes, or in water pipes -- introduces additional concerns. Burning marijuana leaves and buds, for example, can produce 50% to 70% more carcinogens than tobacco cigarettes.

Beyond that, those patients who have never smoked anything -- or who are receiving other treatments that interfere with their ability to smoke -- may find smoking marijuana challenging or a non-option. I found that to be a case with a patient I once worked with.

Mr. C was a 79-year-old man suffering from lung cancer and COPD. He suffered from chronic bone pain, nausea, and severe weight loss. He asked his doctor about medical marijuana and received the necessary prescription. When I came to see him, he had a joint rolled up, but he didn't know how to use it. It was immediately clear that because of his inexperience, and mainly because he was using oxygen and was already suffering from a forceful cough, the marijuana cigarette would not be the best method of use for him.

Beyond Smoking: Other Options for Medical Marijuana Use

It's important to stress that medical marijuana is a doctor-prescribed treatment and should only be used according to a doctor's instruction. If you or someone you care for does opt for medical marijuana, non-smoking options include:

Edible Marijuana

Medical cannabis can be heated and made into oils, butters, and tinctures. Many cannabis clubs carry pre-made cookies, brownies, lollipops, and teas. Savvy patients who are willing to take the time can find recipes to make their own marijuana oil, butter, or tinctures. Eating or drinking marijuana's active ingredient, THC, is certainly preferable to many patients than smoking it, but it isn't without problems. When THC is consumed, either in food or drink, it doesn't absorb into the bloodstream as quickly as when it is smoked. This can make it more difficult to control how much of the drug is consumed. Additionally, patients who suffer from decreased appetite or nausea may not tolerate eating or drinking marijuana.

Vaporizers

Another option is to inhale marijuana vapors. Using a vaporizer, marijuana is heated at a high enough temperature to vaporize the THC but not burn the plant. You can then breath in the vapor from a bag without inhaling the harsh and potentially toxic smoke.

Vaporizers range from battery-powered, hand-held devices to large plug-in units. Quality and prices range widely, so it is wise to shop around and read user reviews.

Vaporizing marijuana is much healthier for your lungs, and it also produces the highest THC content of all the smoking methods. This allows you to use less marijuana at a time, potentially saving you money.

Mr. C experimented with edible marijuana. He found he enjoyed the marijuana brownies he was able to get at the Cannabis Club, but as his appetite waned, he found it difficult to stomach the rich chocolate taste. He didn't want to invest in a vaporizer because his life expectancy was short. However, through the people he met at the Cannabis Club, he was able to strike a deal with a another medical marijuana patient to split the cost of a vaporizer with an agreement that the other patient would inherit the device after Mr. C's death. It was an unusual arrangement, to be sure, but it allowed Mr. C to continue using medical marijuana for several more weeks.

Medical Marijuana FAQs

Sources:

Benson, J.A., et al. "From Marijuana to Medicine". Issues in Science and Technology. March, 1999.

ProCon.Org. Medical Marijuana - Non-Smoked Marijuana. Retrieved July, 2010. http://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=000223

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