Medical marijuana and eye disease: The jury is still out

Just this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a medical marijuana plan in an address to the State of New York.  Many states have followed a trend approving medical marijuana use. To date, more than twenty states have approved marijuana use for medical purposes. One of the more popular medical uses for the common street drug is for eye conditions, such as glaucoma.

How marijuana works in glaucoma cases

Glaucoma is a disease in which fluid pressure within the eye’s optic nerve rises. The optic nerve is that nerve that sends signals to the brain and if the pressure continues to grow, a patient can lose vision in the eye and may become blind. Medical professionals discovered that smoking marijuana lowers the fluid pressure in the optic nerve, which relieves and slows down the development of glaucoma. 

Federal interest in the effects of marijuana on eye disease

The federal government, through the National Institutes of Health’s National Eye Institute (NEI), has been interested in the effect of marijuana use on eye conditions. The NEI has long monitored studies and offered funding for medical marijuana use and eye disease. 

In the early 1970s, medical studies reported that marijuana, when smoked, helped people who suffered from glaucoma. By 1978, research to figure out that marijuana or treatments was underway. Over the past several decades, clinical studies have determined that marijuana use is a possible treatment for eye diseases, like glaucoma. 

The downside of medical marijuana use for eye disease

While the studies provide some hopeful information, there are clearly downsides to marijuana use as a treatment protocol. Research has shown that in order for a glaucoma patient to benefit from marijuana use, even in the short term, they must constantly inhale marijuana smoke, as much as every three hours.   

Research has also shown that marijuana use has long term is not recommended; because it is a Schedule I drug which has the potential to become addictive and has lasting side effects. Some of these side effects include:

  • distorted perceptions
  • impaired motor coordination
  • memory and problem solving difficulties
  • increased risk for heart attack
  • risk for irregular heart beat

Plus, despite all the research about marijuana use and eye disease, the studies have proven that smoking marijuana is not more effective than other glaucoma treatments already on the market. These treatments include Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved drugs, laser surgery and conventional eye surgery.

The future for medical marijuana use

Under federal law, marijuana is still an illegal drug and the federal government has not approved it as a drug because there is insufficient scientific evidence for the marijuana plant to gain FDA approval; however, the FDA has approved drobinal (also known as Marinol), a synthetic form of tetrahydocannabinal (THC), as well as other similar drugs.   

The Glaucoma Research Foundation plans to continue to monitor research relating to marijuana use and effective treatment for glaucoma.  At this time, the number and sizes of existing studies do not provide enough information to determine well-defined and measurable ingredients for doctors to consistently make standard dosing recommendations.

As national organizations continue to press for legalized uses of marijuana, the controversial topic of medical marijuana use will be in the forefront. Clinical studies have not advanced to the point where medical marijuana use is superior to other known treatment, but the search for information will continue.