Many patients have asked my opinion about recreational and medicinal marijuana use. For many reasons, I am glad that laws have changed, in part because I believe in quality control. I also think it is a great help to people with chronic pain or nausea, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (obviously pregnant women should never use it, even for severe morning sickness). However, in accordance with the fundamental tenets of Chinese medicine, I emphasize moderation in all things. Marijuana use and abuse is of concern to me- many people believe that because they keep a healthy diet and don’t drink alcohol, they are living “healthy lifestyles” despite smoking pot daily! This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The history of marijuana, known as “Ma” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, is somewhat vague. In ancient China, cannabis sativa was used as a fibrous material (made into rope, clothing, paper and so on) and hemp seeds are still used in TCM as a laxative because they contain oils that lubricate the intestines. In the Chinese Materia Medica, hemp seeds are classified as sweet in flavor, neutral in property and acting on the spleen/stomach and large intestine channels. The seeds have no psychoactive effect and are not used for pain management or nausea. Marijuana is considered a Yin plant, and the male and female plants were identified centuries ago. It is the flowers and buds of the female cannabis plants that contain the psychoactive resin that all this hype is about. I have read that an ancient Chinese doctor named Hua T’o used cannabis resin mixed with wine as an anesthetic during surgery. It is also documented in another text that marijuana was used to treat everything from gout to malaria. There are a few other random documentations of marijuana and its psychoactive effects on the “shen,” or spirit in the ancient texts, but not many. It was predominantly the hemp seeds that were prevalently used (and still are) by Chinese medicine doctors.
There is no doubt that marijuana does effectively curb nausea and reduces the experience of pain. It is also a mind-altering substance that when smoked or eaten can elicit the high close to a dream-like, relaxing state. But it can also lead to paranoia, lethargy, and “munchies,” or excessive hunger. From what I have studied, and from my clinical experience treating habitual marijuana users, I have concluded that this drug affects people differently. Some claim to feel much better with use, while others clearly experience an exacerbation of symptoms whether they acknowledge it or not. Hot marijuana smoke inhaled into the lungs injures the lung qi. It also affects the liver- while it is said to have an expansive effect on the liver, ultimately it leads to sludge, or congestion of the liver, thereby weakening the spleen and stomach indirectly. This can lead to poor digestion. It can ultimately deplete the kidneys as well. And while it can usher in spiritual experience, the “shen” or spirit may become dulled by prolonged use (paranoia, short-term memory loss, poor quality sleep and so on).
As I said earlier, I believe it can be a useful tool in combating specific symptoms, but for recreational use, I do not believe consuming in excess is healthy. Dependency on anything is not ideal- and this goes for other recreational drugs, caffeine, alcohol, sugary foods and so on. Whether you opt for marijuana as a method of managing symptoms or for recreation, please ensure that you also: eat a healthy diet, sleep adequately, maintain a healthy overall lifestyle and do not over-indulge. Each person has a unique constitution and each one’s body and mind will respond slightly differently to marijuana. Some may need other modalities (acupuncture and/or herbs) to regulate its effects and to get the most out of its medicinal properties.