Cannabis-Based Drugs: 8 Things to Know

  • Stethoscope next to marijuana leaf
    The Reality of Cannabis-based Drugs
    The therapeutic promise of cannabis-based drugs is fueling intense interest these days, but it can be difficult to sort out where things stand. Confusion abounds between synthetic and natural cannabis-based drugs, CBDs, medical marijuana, what these drugs treat, and finally—what’s illegal and what’s not. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently approved the first medication made from a natural substance found in cannabis plants, so it’s a good time to understand the landscape of cannabis-based drugs.

  • marijuana leaves in a petri dish
    1. The cannabis plant contains dozens of chemicals (cannabinoids) including CBD and THC.
    Some cannabinoids, like THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), have what scientists call a psychoactive effect: It’s the THC in a marijuana plant that makes you high. Another cannabinoid, CBD (cannabidiol), does not make you high. However, both show promise in treating a range of conditions, including inflammatory and neurological diseases like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). They can also help relieve pain and nausea, even in cancer patients. Using them legally can be complicated, however, with a patchwork of laws covering different states and territories.

  • White capsules in green-tinted pill bottle
    2. Synthetic cannabis-based drugs are already available.
    You may be surprised to know three medicines made from synthetically produced THC already on the market. The FDA approved the drugs with the knowledge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. These medications treat some side effects of chemotherapy and other conditions that cause weight loss and nausea: Marinol is a synthetic form of THC for treatment of anorexia in patients with AIDS, and nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy. Syndros is a liquefied form of Marinol. Cesamet is a synthetic cannabinoid similar to THC that helps prevent nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients who don’t find relief using other medications.

  • Pharmacist scanning pill bottle
    3. The FDA has recently approved a natural cannabis-based drug for seizures.
    The drug that has a lot of people talking lately is Epidiolex, which uses CBD derived from the cannabis plant rather than synthetic compounds. The FDA has approved Epidiolex to treat two rare conditions in children: Lennox-Gaustaut Syndrome and a form of epilepsy called Dravet Syndrome. Both conditions cause multiple, often uncontrolled seizures and developmental disorders. In clinical trials, Epidiolex significantly reduced seizures in some children. The Drug Enforcement Agency will have to reclassify CBD for Epidiolex to be marketed, but it may already be available on an expanded use basis.

  • Caregiver with tablet next to senior man with medical marijuana
    4. Cannabis-based drugs are not the same as “medical marijuana.”
    Medical marijuana is material from the cannabis plant itself—sold through licensed sellers—that you consume by smoking, vaporizing or eating. It is not a medicine you get through a traditional pharmacy. More than half the states, plus the District of Columbia, have approved the use of medical marijuana for such conditions as chronic pain, seizures, nausea, and glaucoma, among others. States permit its use despite the federal ruling that makes marijuana illegal. You must have a prescription to purchase it just as you would the FDA-approved cannabis-based drugs. There’s a lot we don’t know about medical marijuana, but now, changing federal laws allow more research to proceed.

  • Woman at desk holding neck looking at phone
    5. You will not become addicted to cannabis-based drugs, but side effects are possible.
    Whether marijuana itself is habit-forming has been a subject of debate. There is no evidence marijuana is physically addictive, though it is possible it could lead to “marijuana use disorder,” where you become dependent on using it. Cannabis-based drugs that contain CBD (but not THC) will not make you high, further lowering the chance of abuse. Side effects of cannabis-based drugs may include dry mouth, sleepiness, anxiety or dizziness, but the risk of severe side effects is small. 

  • Close-up of hand with green glove holding bottles of cannabis drugs
    6. The legality of CBD and medical marijuana is complicated.
    Are CBD and medical marijuana legal or not? The Federal Government and certain states differ on the matter and policies are in flux. What is clear is you can get a prescription for any FDA-approved cannabis-based drug if it’s medically appropriate. In states where you can legally buy medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation, guidelines for its use may vary. Online, you can buy CBD, often in oil form, but the legality is murky. Be sure to check your state’s position on medical marijuana and CBD, and stay informed about changing federal policy.

  • Female researcher studying petri dishes
    7. There are other cannabis-based drugs in the pipeline.
    Researchers and pharmaceutical companies are studying and testing cannabis-based drugs for a variety of conditions, and it’s possible some will be submitted for FDA approval in the coming years. Conditions include glaucoma; pain from neuropathy, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and other chronic conditions; dementia symptoms; and spasticity from multiple sclerosis and other neurological diseases. Some states already allow the use of medical marijuana for several of these conditions. Check with your doctor or state government for local laws so that you understand the legality of any substances containing cannabinoids.

  • Bottle of cannabis oil on top of marijuana leaf and money
    8. Beware of online scams offering CBD or CBD oil for sale.
    The heightened interest in cannabis-based drugs, CBD, and medical marijuana has laid the groundwork for some unscrupulous sellers. Use caution when you buy CBD products, which may also be advertised as hemp oil, and be suspicious of exaggerated claims about curing disease. In contrast to its oversight of cannabis-based pharmaceuticals, the FDA does not oversee CBD that you buy online or in stores, so exercise great care. Talk with your doctor before taking any cannabis-derived substance for medical use.

Cannabis-Based Drugs | Medical Marijuana & Cannabidiol (CBD)

About The Author

Nancy LeBrun is an Emmy- and Peabody award-winning writer and producer who has been writing about health and wellness for more than five years. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
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  13. Cannabis and Cannabinoids. National Cancer Institute.
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  15. State Medical Marijuana Laws. National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 5
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