Public interest in cannabis and medical marijuana has grown over the years. Although cannabis has been used to treat health issues for thousands of years (The Complete Guide, n.d.), it is a controversial topic in the United States, largely due to complexities about the legality of its possession and use as well as uncertain evidence about its efficacy as a medical treatment.

Difference between Cannabis, Marijuana, and Hemp

The term medical or medicinal marijuana refers to the whole, unprocessed cannabis plant or its basic extracts used to treat symptoms of illness or other conditions (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). For the purpose of this fact sheet, we will use “medical marijuana.” Furthermore, the terms “hemp” and “marijuana” do not mean the same thing. Both encompass different categories of cannabis and they have different properties.

gummys and nuggets

Cannabis refers to all products derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana refers to a variety of cannabis that contain substantial (more than 0.3%) amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). On the other hand, hemp refers to a variety of cannabis that contains less than 0.3% of THC. Hemp contains CBD and can be used in a variety of ways such as in paper products, clothing, shoes, rope, and carpeting (Cadena, 2020).


The cannabis plant has many chemicals but there are two main chemicals: THC and CBD.

THC is one of the many substances found in the cannabis plant that is responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 2019). THC causes the “high” or mind-altering feeling or buzz associated with cannabis (The Complete Guide, n.d.). While these side effects can occur, THC has also been associated with potentially increasing appetite, reducing nausea, and decreasing pain and inflammation, although significant research is lacking. THC levels in marijuana can vary and can therefore have different effects on a person.

gummy and snacks

The other main substance derived from the cannabis plant is Cannabidiol, also known as CBD. It is important to note that, unlike THC, CBD does not make people “high” and may also help in reducing pain and inflammation (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). The human body also produces its own cannabinoid chemicals that play roles in regulating memory, thinking, body movement, appetite, pain, and the five senses. (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). These are naturally-occurring cannabis-like molecules produced by the body (UCLA Health n.d.). Therefore, there is interest in using cannabinoids to utilize these receptors for medical purposes.

Types of Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana comes in numerous forms, including the following: oil for vaporizing, pill, topical applications, oral solution, and sundried leaves and buds (Mayo Clinic, 2019). Frequency and duration of use depend, and it is generally self-administered.

Cannabis and Research

Currently, cannabis and medical marijuana have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is due to a number of factors, including the illegality of marijuana at a federal level and the lack of large-scale clinical trials proving the efficacy of marijuana (The Complete Guide, n.d.). However, the FDA has approved some drugs that contain cannabinoids to treat specific illnesses and diseases. These include severe forms of epilepsy, and nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy (National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, 2019).

Cannabis and Legalization

The possession and use of cannabis in any form is illegal at the federal level and continues to be a complicated issue. However, 33 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana (State Marijuana Laws, n.d.). Qualifications for medical marijuana treatment vary by state. Conversely, hemp is a legal substance. Hemp became an FDA approved and regulated agricultural product through the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the 2018 Farm Bill (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2020).

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Although not legal at the federal level, marijuana is legal in California for both medical and recreational use (Sacramento County Law, n.d.). Patients who meet certain requirements can legally use medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation or a county-issued medical marijuana identification card (California Department of Public Health, 2017). It is important to understand that doctors do not prescribe marijuana because it is prohibited by federal law. Thus, marijuana is recommended under appropriate conditions. Qualifying conditions for medical marijuana recommendations in the state of California include: cancer, anorexia, AIDS, chronic pain, glaucoma, arthritis, migraine, and more (Sacramento County Law, n.d.). Thus, a doctor’s recommendation is not needed, but consulting a doctor before using medical marijuana is recommended (Gill, 2018).

Being a Safe Consumer

Although public interest in cannabis and medical marijuana continue to grow, they remain controversial topics in the U.S. If you are considering using medical marijuana and live in a state in which it is legal, be sure to do your research. Discuss it with your doctor first, to ensure that you are aware of all your treatment options as well as any potential side effects or medication interactions. Also check your state and local laws regarding the regulation of marijuana use and the licensing of cannabis dispensaries. All these factors, as well as any potential risks and your personal values, should be taken into account in your decisions.


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UCLA Health. (n.d.). Human Endocannabinoid System. Retrieved from

U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2020). FDA Regulations of Cannabis and Cannabis-Derived Products, Including Cannabidiol (CBD). Retrieved from