Here's exactly how medical marijuana works in the body

Americans who doubt that marijuana has medicinal benefits are now — squarely — in the minority. According to a Healthday/Harris Poll released this July, nearly 9 in 10 Americans now support legalizing the drug for medicinal use (compared to just 57 percent for recreational).

This sentiment is reflected in the nation’s legal landscape, where 31 states (plus D.C., Guam, and Puerto Rico) have legalized it for medical use. But with a Schedule I classification remaining from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the drug remains federally illegal — making it difficult to track down information about its benefits and dangers. 

Part of this stems from researchers’ inability to study the drug’s effects on humans, since the DEA considers Schedule I substances as having “no currently accepted medical use.” So how does medical marijuana work to treat various ailments in the body?

Medical marijuana can help treat everything from Crohn’s disease to multiple sclerosis. Here’s what it does to your body. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Understanding marijuana’s medical value starts with getting a clear picture of what it is. Marijuana — sometimes referred to as cannabis — is a part of a family of flowering plants that includes hemp. The plant has 100 different substances called cannabinoids, which are active chemicals that can alter the body and mind.

Two cannabinoids in particular have proven beneficial in medical ways — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).  THC is a psychoactive ingredient (it contains the mind-altering properties associated with feeling high), but CBD offers health benefits without causing a high. But how do they work exactly?

According to Caroline Hartridge, a medical cannabis expert and doctor of osteopathic medicine, these ingredients revolve around our nervous system. “The CBD and THC operate within our endocannabinoid system — the largest neurotransmitter system within the body — which helps regulate or modulate our homeostasis, everything from temperature to appetite to reproduction to sleep/wake cycles,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Those two chemicals in particular work in a lock-and-key mechanism where receptors are the lock and CBD and THC are the different keys. Once the CBD and the THC interact with that receptor, they can stimulate bone health, they can decrease blood pressure, and they can modulate your perception of pain and even your memory of an unfavorable event.”

Through this complicated lock-and-key model, THC and CBD offer relief from symptoms caused by conditions like multiple sclerosis, cancer, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, and Crohn’s disease. In particular, THC can help reduce nausea, increase appetite, decrease pain and inflammation, and help with muscle-control problems. CBD has benefits including pain reduction, controlling epileptic seizures, and potentially reducing the effects of mental illness such as anxiety.

As far as accessing the drug in your state, Hartridge recommends checking the health department’s website in your state first and then checking in with your doctor. “I would book an appointment and have an open and honest conversation with your primary care provider,” Hartridge says. For more information about medical marijuana’s benefits and where it is legal, go to Norml.com.

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