Virginia Thornley, M.D., Board-Certified Neurologist, Epileptologist
April 6, 2018
Medical marijuana seems like the shining breakthrough drug the shining pill in armor, the magic pill that seems to cure everything. However, there are always two sides to every coin. One must still proceed with caution. The phytocannabinoids, cannabidiol, and tetrahydrocannabinol exert their effects through the endocannabinoid pathway, the CB1 receptor is most abundantly found in the nervous system. Cannabidiol which has no euphoria acts weakly with the CB1 receptor almost as a reverse agonist blocking the THC from exerting its effect offsetting potent side effects of tetrahydrocannabinol.
The medical benefits are overwhelmingly numerous including ameliorating seizures, spasms from multiple sclerosis, peripheral neuropathy in HIV patients, chronic debilitating pain, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and other associated diseases. Despite the stigma of using it, the delay in clinical trials and marked hesitation of the medical community, medical marijuana has landed and there is no going back. Yet even with its numerous health benefits, it is always prudent to take a step back and examine any flaws as with any other new kid on the block or any new agent that comes along even though it’s been around for thousands of years.
Is marijuana safe for medical use? The take on medical marijuana by the FDA
So far from the FDA official website, the FDA does not recognize medical marijuana coming from the botanical plant with any medical indication. The FDA does not recognize it to be safe or beneficial for any type of disease or condition. The FDA will facilitate any companies interested in bringing quality products including science-based research. The full take of the FDA on marijuana can be found here https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm421168.htm#use
Long-term effects on the brain
Perusing the scientific literature, it is difficult to find any long-term damage to the brain. There was a report in a heavy marijuana user where there was damage to the corpus callosum, possibly worse with young users (1). This is a small study of 11 heavy marijuana users with 11 age-matched cohorts. Diffusion tensor imaging was used. Previous reports alluded towards poor cognition with heavy marijuana use. This study is aligned with that. It was suggested that there may be increased diffusibility within the white matter tracts of the corpus callosum. Young age is thought to make the corpus more susceptible to white matter damage. The only caveat is this is with heavy use and the substance found in recreational marijuana is going to be a different form compared to medical marijuana extracted from the marijuana plant used for medicinal purposes. It is not clear if this report would carry over to medical marijuana users where the preparation of the product is much different(1).
Effect on schizophrenia spectrum diseases
In a large study of 171 patients, it was found that with heavy use of cannabis, the age of onset of schizophrenia spectrum disorders seems to occur earlier (6). This is one of the reasons why in some dispensaries, it is not sold to patients with a history of schizophrenia. There are some anecdotal reports of some patients having a paranoia with medical marijuana that is reversible once taken off.
Effect on the heart, reports of myocardial infarcts and ST elevations
While the literature suggests low toxicity and most side effects are related to cognition and gastrointestinal problems, there are several cannabis-associated myocardial infarcts in the literature. The dispensaries in the state of Florida use a previous history of a previous myocardial infarct as a contraindication in using medical marijuana. These were synthetic drugs used recreationally. There was one case report where a heavy user suffered from an ST elevation and subsequent myocardial infarct after becoming toxic to marijuana used recreationally. In one study, synthetic cannabis was used, the myocardial happened to a young patient where an atheromatous plaque was excluded as the source. Etiology and mechanism are unclear why infarcts should occur. It is quite possible that because it works on the 5HT receptor for anxiety which can cause vasoconstriction, this may be one mechanism. Other studies are needed to elucidate the mechanism of action.
Because medical marijuana is used as an adjunctive agent for epilepsy, perhaps off-label since it has not been approved through FDA as an anti-epileptic agent yet, it was found that medical marijuana used in conjunction with Clobazam (Onfi) tended to elevate Onfi at higher levels.
In one small clinical study, in 13 patients, 9 had an increase of about 60 in the Clobazam level and by 300 in Norclobazam level. There was, however, a tremendous reduction of seizures by >50% but Onfi (Clobazam and Norclobazam levels) should be monitored (3) on a routine basis to avoid any untoward toxicity.
Other milder symptoms
In one large study on Lennox-Gastaut syndrome where cannabidiol was titrated to a 20mg/kg over a course of 14 weeks, mild to moderate symptoms were noted including pyrexia, sedation, dizziness, and diarrhea. However, the titration rate was very rapid and the patents who were 50kg were quickly at 1000mg within 14 weeks which does not usually happen in the real world. Medications are usually increased over a longer period of time in slower increments.
While everybody is touting the horn of medical marijuana it is always prudent to stand back and ensure there are no possible risk factors for adverse side effects. The most serious and common seen in the literature appear to be related to schizophrenia spectrum disorders and cannabis associated myocardial infarct. The only caveat is that the literature is peppered with these reports, however, the quality of the recreational drugs are vastly different from medical marijuana which tends to be organic and all natural extracted from the plant in licensed medical dispensaries. The extraction of the medical components is vastly different from the smoked synthetic version of tetrahydrocannabinol. So, is difficult to know if these reports would actually corroborate with use in medical marijuana. The ones with side effects were heavy users of recreational smoked types of marijuana, it is unclear if it was synthetic or organic. As the popularity of medical marijuana progresses, more information will be available regarding the side effect profile.
- Arnone, et al, “Corpus callosum damage in heavy use: preliminary evidence from diffusion tensor tractography and tract-based spatial statistics,” Neuroimage, 2008, Jul., 1, 41 (3): 1067-74. “J Addict Med. 2017 Sep/Oct;11(5):405-407. doi: 10.1097/ADM.0000000000000326.
- Volpon, et al, “Multiple cerebral infarcts in a young patient associated with marijuana use, ” Journ. Addic. Med, 2017, Sep./Oct., 11(5):405-407.
- Geffrey, Drug-drug interaction between clobazam and cannabidiol in children with refractory epilepsy,” Epilepsia, 2015, Aug., 58 (8):1246-1251.
- Stewart, et al, “Obstructive sleep apnea due to laryngospasm links ictal to postictal events in SUDEP cases and offers practical biomarkers for review of past cases and prevention of new ones,” Epilepsia, 2017, Jun., 58(6): e87-90
Shahzade, et al, “Patterns in adolescent cannabis use predict the onset and symptom structure of schizophrenia-spectrum disorder,” Schizophrenia Research, 2018, Feb., 2 pii S090-9964 doi:10. 1016/j. schres. 2018.01.008 (Epub ahead of print)
Orsini, et al, “Prolonged cardiac arrest complicating massive ST-segment elevation myocardial infarct associated with myocardial consumption,” J. Community Hosp. Intern. Med. Perspect, 2016, Sep., 7. 6 (4):31695
Thiele, et al, “Cannabidiol in patients with seizures from Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome (GWPCARE4): a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled phase 3 trial,” Lancet, 2018, Jan., 390 (10125):1085-1096