Most frequent questions and answers

Marijuana—which can also be called cannabis, weed, pot, or dope—refers to the dried flowers, leaves, stems, and seeds of the cannabis plant. The cannabis plant contains more than 100 compounds (or cannabinoids). These compounds include tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is impairing or mind-altering, as well as other active compounds, such as cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is not impairing, meaning it does not cause a “high”.1

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States where medical marijuana is legal have approved it for a varying list of conditions. Depending on where you live, these might include:

  • Severe and chronic pain
  • Multiple sclerosis and muscle spasms
  • Severe nausea and vomiting caused by cancer treatment
  • Epilepsy and seizures
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Migraine
  • Anorexia
  • Extreme weight loss and weakness (wasting syndrome)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

It is important to know that many of the uses that states allow aren’t backed by strong scientific evidence. This is partly because researchers find it hard to do studies on a drug that remains illegal under federal law, even when it’s allowed by states.

It’s also important to realize that cannabis is almost always used to treat symptoms — like the muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis and the loss of appetite caused by HIV drugs — rather than the conditions themselves.

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Cannabinoids, the active chemicals in medical marijuana, are similar to chemicals the body makes that are involved in appetite, memory, movement, and pain.

So far, solid studies suggest that these chemicals can:

  • Control vomiting in people undergoing cancer chemotherapy. Drugs based on two lab-made forms of THC are FDA-approved for this purpose.
  • Modestly reduce pain in people with conditions such as nerve damage, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Reduce muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis. (There’s less evidence it helps muscle spasms in people with spinal cord injuries).

In addition, there’s some evidence that medical marijuana might:

  • Improve sleep in the short term for people with obstructive sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, or multiple sclerosis.
  • Increase appetite and decrease weight loss in people with HIV and AIDS.
  • Reduce tics in people with Tourette’s syndrome.
  • Reduce anxiety in people with social anxiety disorder.
  • Improve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

There’s not enough evidence to say whether medical marijuana works or not for many other conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and addiction to other substances.

Medical marijuana received a lot of attention a few years ago when parents said that a special form of the drug helped control seizures in their children. Studies showed good enough results for the FDA to approve Epidiolex, made from a purified form of CBD, as a therapy for people with two rare seizure disorders, Lenox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes.

There’s no approved form of medical marijuana for people with more common forms of epilepsy. Studies looking at broader uses are underway.

To take medical marijuana, you can:

  • Smoke it
  • Vape it (inhale it through a device that turns it into a mist)
  • Eat it, in forms such as a brownie, lollipop, or soft candy
  • Take it as a pill
  • Apply it to your skin using a lotion, spray, oil, or cream
  • Place a few drops of a liquid under your tongue
  • Insert a suppository in your vagina or anus

You should discuss these methods with your doctor because they work differently in your body and have different pros and cons for different people.

Smoking and vaping produce the quickest effects. They also can cause lung damage. The FDA has warned people not to vape marijuana products for that reason.

Cannabis products you eat — edibles — spare your lungs but have their own risks. They take longer to work, which leads some people to underestimate their potency and take too much. That can result in bad side effects, such as extreme sleepiness, anxiety, hallucinations, and vomiting.

There’s less research on less common methods, such as suppositories.

More than two-thirds of U.S. states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, in various forms, for medical treatments. More are considering bills to do the same. In some of those states, it’s also legal for adults to use marijuana recreationally.

Medical marijuana laws differ from state to state, with some, for example, limiting THC doses or forbidding smoked forms.

Medical marijuana is legal in 38 states and the District of Columbia:

  • Alaska
  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia

Some states don’t allow medical use of potentially intoxicating products high in THC. However, they do allow some access or provide legal protections for people using products low in THC but high in CBD for medical or research reasons. These states include Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The FDA has only approved three drugs related to cannabis. One is the epilepsy drug Epidiolex, which is made from a highly purified form of CBD. The other two are lab-made medicines — dronabinol (MarinolSyndros) and nabilone (Cesamet) — to treat nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and low appetite in HIV patients.

The FDA has not approved any medical use of the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa L.) itself or any of the many products made directly from the plant. Most medical marijuana involves using those products.

Despite many state laws allowing their use, these unapproved drugs also remain illegal under federal law. The U.S. Drug Enforcement considers cannabis a Schedule 1 drug, which means it has no medical use and a potential for abuse, just like heroin or LSD. Proposals to change that classification are under review. In the meantime, federal enforcement policies have varied from administration to administration.

If you use medical marijuana in a state where it’s legal, being on the state’s patient registry may give you some protection against arrest for possessing a certain amount of medical marijuana for personal use. The laws also often protect doctors who recommend marijuana use.

Some CBD products are legal, even under federal law. CBD is legal if it comes from hemp, which is any part of the cannabis plant with no more than 0.3% THC, the mind-altering substance in marijuana. That’s why, in most states, you can buy foods, cosmetics, and other products containing CBD without a medical marijuana card. Keep in mind that while these products are legal, they aren’t regulated or approved by the FDA.

The CDC says CBD can cause drowsiness, mood changes, diarrhea, and other side effects and is not safe during pregnancy.


You can get marijuana in many states if you have certain conditions and a recommendation from a doctor. But, except for a few cannabis-related drugs approved by the FDA, these products have not undergone the rigorous study required of prescription drugs. They also remain illegal under federal law, though state laws give some protection to approved users.

Marijuana dispensaries around the country offer products from many different strains of cannabis plants. While users often report different effects on their symptoms from different strains, research in this area is thin.