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COLUMN: Weeding out the truth about medical cannabis

Bridgetown-based pharmacist Heather O’Donnell shares some need-to-know info about shingles in the latest Pharm Report column.
Bridgetown-based pharmacist Heather O’Donnell shares some need-to-know info about shingles in the latest Pharm Report column. - Contributed

BRIDGETOWN, N.S. - As the country scrambles to figure out how to safely and fairly adapt to the legalization of marijuana, the pharmaceutical world is in a similar position. 

This has become a controversial topic but, before you decide where you stand on the subject, you need to understand the complexity of the topic.  That means “weeding” out facts from opinions. 

I can only present you with the issue through a pharmaceutical lens and, to keep it as concise as possible, I will tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

As cannabis use becomes more mainstream, people are becoming more comfortable talking about its benefits and whether or not it may be an option for them. For example, who would have guessed that a seniors’ group would be interested on the details around cannabis?

Currently, cannabis is recognized as a viable medical option for several conditions, including nerve pain and various symptoms of multiple sclerosis. It may also be used as a last line of treatment for some ailments that have not responded to conventional therapies such as cancer-related nausea, PTSD, and fibromyalgia.  Also noteworthy is that cannabis compounds have varying ratios of THC (which gives you a “high”) and CBD (which has more medicinal benefits), and products that have reduced levels of THC and increased levels of CBD are slowly reaching the market.

The Bad

Although it is a “natural” product, it still comes with side effects and drug interactions. One side effect that seems counterintuitive is that it can increase the heart rate and blood pressure (so much for cannabis “chilling” you out!). People with any heart issues should be very cautious. It can also impair your ability to operate a motor vehicle and studies have shown up to a two-fold increase in motor vehicle accidents. A few other side effects that I’ll throw out there are decreased libido, memory impairment, and paranoia.

It is also important to note cannabis is metabolized by, and affects, the liver system called cytochrome p450. The long and the short of that is that many drugs may be affected by cannabis and cannabis may be affected by many drugs. Your best bet is to make sure your health-care professional knows that you are using cannabis and that you always have them check for drug interactions when starting or stopping medications.

The Ugly

There are a few very concerning risks with cannabis. In the forefront is the use of cannabis by people under the age of 25, whose brains are still developing. In this population, its use can result in psychosis and the triggering of underlying mood disorders such as schizophrenia. To make matters worse, there may be permanent changes to the user’s brain. On the other end of the spectrum is the use of cannabis by seniors. This group may already have decreased reaction time, be on multiple medications, and can be more susceptible to some of the side effects. 

As is true with any prescription drug, misuse and uninformed use can be detrimental. It is easy to stereotype marijuana as a drug that will mellow you out and make you feel good because that’s the picture that society has painted of it, but it’s not all peace, love, and happiness. Be sure you understand the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of use and talk with your health care professionals before you use cannabis.

  • Heather O’Donnell, originally from Middleton, is a pharmacist at Pharmasave in Bridgetown.

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