Marijuana Use in People with Parkinson's
Last updated: September 2019
As my family and I make the three-hour drive home after a long weekend in the Texas Hill country, my 13-year-old daughter, Meredith, asks the question:
“Dad, did you know that some people with Parkinson’s use weed?”
Surfing the web on her phone, she has come across a news story about medical marijuana. A newly established law in our home state allows for its use with certain restrictions.1
“What’s desk-kin…what did you call it, Dad?”
“Dyskinesia. It’s when you have automatic movements that you can’t control, like rocking back and forth or wiggling your body. You know, like when you can’t sit still. Sometimes, the Parkinson’s medicines we take in order to move better can also cause these uncontrollable movements; what we call dyskinesia,” I say.
“Dad, you’re not going to start smoking weed, are you? That’s not good for your brain...you know drugs are bad for you!” she says.
Our eleven-year-old daughter, Holly, nods in agreement and says, “She’s right, Dad.”
Score one for the team. Both girls have internalized our conversations about using drugs. They know what the research shows, namely, that marijuana can have harmful effects, and especially on the developing adolescent brain.
To use medical marijuana or not
Marijuana’s harmful effects, at any age, may include complications in the brain’s reward system, decreased neural connectivity, which can impair learning, impaired executive function and decision-making, and even a drop in IQ. Other harmful effects may include increased rates of drug addiction, particularly when marijuana becomes “a gateway” to using other drugs, increased risk of depression and anxiety, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, cognitive problems, including memory loss, and increased risk of automobile and other kinds of accidents. Among teens, marijuana use also may impede academic performance and long-term achievement.2-4
Of course, alcohol use presents many of the same risks as marijuana, as well as additional ones.5
Meredith and Holly have an emerging awareness of these concerns, but also of the medical marijuana debate.
Which got me thinking more about Meredith’s question, the research behind it, and the basis for any decision I might make to use marijuana to treat my Parkinson’s symptoms.
Current laws and research on medical marijuana
Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia permit restricted use of marijuana for medical reasons.6 Moreover, 26 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized marijuana in small amounts while 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for adult recreational use, again in small amounts. “A small amount” means between 10 grams and 100 grams, with a typical joint weighing approximately half of a gram.7 Note, however, that medical marijuana often comes in edible forms, which what the new law in Texas requires.
Benefits of marijuana reported by those with Parkinson’s include relief for bradykinesia (slowed movement) and tremors, reduction in dyskinesia, enhanced mood, help with sleep, relief from nausea, and reduced pain and opioid use.4,8 We typically find less social stigma associated with marijuana use than in years past, too, and particularly as Baby Boomers age.3 In fact, many of us may know people who find this kind of relief in marijuana and who openly discuss it.
However, to date, no scientific evidence confirms marijuana’s medical benefits for those with Parkinson’s disease.8 Scientific evidence includes replicated studies using randomized controlled trials (RCTs). This is not to say that personal claims for marijuana’s benefits have no merit; but only that these claims need confirmation in rigorous clinical trials if movement disorder specialists, or other physicians, are to recommend marijuana when treating Parkinson’s symptoms. In a similar way, we must further study any risks associated with marijuana use among those with Parkinson’s.3
Small studies on marijuana’s effectiveness in treating Parkinson’s show mixed results. Other studies are underway, and many of us in the Parkinson’s community await their outcomes with great interest.9,10
My personal view
How, then, do I respond to Meredith and Holly?
I say, “I don’t have the need for marijuana right now. The medicines I take control my symptoms pretty well. But this could change, and I think I’d use marijuana if my doctors said it would benefit me.”
Never did I imagine a life with Parkinson’s that began in my late 40s. Before Parkinson’s, never did I dream I would advocate for using marijuana for medical purposes. But if you think about it, it’s like any other drug that treats an insidious disease. If it’s proven safe and effective, then why not use it?
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