The Use of Medical Marijuana for Terminal Illness
Medical marijuana has become an increasingly popular treatment option for patients with terminal illnesses in recent years. Marijuana contains compounds called cannabinoids that can provide relief from symptoms like pain, nausea, anxiety, and insomnia that patients with advanced stages of diseases like cancer or AIDS commonly experience. While medical marijuana remains controversial, research suggests it can improve the quality of life for some terminally ill patients when used under proper medical supervision.
What Conditions Qualify as Terminal Illness
In states where medical marijuana is legal, terminal illness is typically defined as a condition that a doctor reasonably expects to result in death within 12 months. Some of the most common qualifying terminal illnesses include:
- Metastatic cancer that has spread to other organs
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- End-stage AIDS
- Advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- End-stage heart failure
- End-stage liver disease
Doctors may certify other debilitating conditions as terminal on a case-by-case basis as well. The key factor is determining that life expectancy is less than 1 year due to an incurable progressive illness.
Benefits of Medical Marijuana for Terminal Illness
For patients with limited time left, maintaining comfort and quality of life become paramount. Medical marijuana has been shown to help terminal patients in a variety of ways:
Marijuana can reduce acute and chronic pain, which allows patients to rely less on opioids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It activates cannabinoid receptors in the body to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
Poor appetite and unwanted weight loss are common issues for the terminally ill. THC, the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, stimulates appetite to help patients maintain weight and receive proper nutrition.
Reducing Nausea and Vomiting
Terminal patients frequently experience distressing gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea and vomiting. While this can be the result of the illness itself, it can also be from medications like chemotherapy or narcotics. Cannabinoids in marijuana can significantly control nausea and vomiting in many individuals.
Anxiety and Mood
A terminal illness diagnosis can lead to stress, depression, and anxiety. Marijuana induces euphoria and relaxation to stabilize mood and relieve patients’ emotional struggles at the end of life.
Insomnia is another common problem for the terminally ill. Cannabis can help patients fall asleep faster, stay asleep through the night, and achieve more restorative sleep.
Considerations for Using Medical Marijuana
While medical marijuana shows promise for improving terminal patients’ symptom management, some important factors should be considered:
- Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, so access depends on state laws. Currently, 37 states allow medical marijuana for terminal illnesses. Luckily, Virginia is one such state.
- Patients should discuss risks and benefits thoroughly with their doctor before starting marijuana treatment. Potential side effects include impaired concentration, coordination, or short-term memory.
- Marijuana can interact with other medications patients take. Doctors may adjust dosages of opioids, benzodiazepines, steroids, and other drugs if marijuana is added.
- Different strains, dosages, and methods of ingestion (smoking, vaping, edibles, oils, etc.) may need to be tested to find what works best for each patient.
- Secondhand marijuana smoke can negatively impact others, so precautions should be taken around non-patients.
- Patients may develop tolerance over time, requiring gradual dosage increases to maintain symptom relief. Stopping suddenly can also cause withdrawal. Doctors can help manage these issues.
Role of Doctors, Pharmacists, and Caregivers
For medical marijuana to be used safely and effectively by the terminally ill, guidance from doctors and caregivers is critical.
- Doctors determine whether patients qualify for medical marijuana cards and certify terminal diagnoses. They also adjust treatments, monitor progress, and manage side effects.
- Pharmacists operate the marijuana dispensaries in Virginia. These specialized pharmacists are a great source of guidance and suggestions when it comes to selecting products, choosing the best ways to administer the therapy, and helping to manage unwanted effects.
- Caregivers assist with administering proper marijuana doses and strains based on doctors’ recommendations. They monitor for effectiveness and side effects.
- Care teams provide emotional support and help patients understand realistic outcomes marijuana can achieve as other care focuses on comfort.
Medical marijuana has the potential to significantly improve the quality of life in a terminal patient’s final days. With proper medical oversight and support from caregivers, it can be an important part of an overall palliative care plan. More research is still needed, but existing evidence indicates cannabis can safely alleviate major symptoms that make dying more difficult and painful than it needs to be.
Dr. Nicholas Marsh has been a respected board-certified anesthesiologist in Northern Virginia for over 35 years. Recognized as a top doctor by FindaTopDoc.com, his vision for providing top-quality medical services is driven by his passion for patient comfort and dignity.