The History of Medical Marijuana Ailments in the U.S.

Join us as we take a look at the ailments that have qualified for legalized medical marijuana in the U.S.

After decades of marijuana prohibition, it is hard to imagine that at one point cannabis-based medications were commonly available in the United States.

Thankfully, over the past 25 years, changing social attitudes around marijuana have helped fuel a wave of cannabis reform across the country. Today, while marijuana remains illegal under federal law, three-fifths of U.S. states have passed their own laws allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.

If you’re like a majority of Americans, you recognize that marijuana has significant therapeutic benefits with minimal side effects. Perhaps you or someone you love uses cannabis to alleviate symptoms or to help manage a disorder.

Cannabis and its exciting therapeutic potential is better understood now than ever, and across the U.S., there are more than 50 diseases or conditions that cannabis has been legalized for.

We welcome you to join us as we explore the history of ailments that have been approved for medical marijuana in the U.S. In this article, we’ll dive into the following

  • A Brief History of Medical Cannabis in the U.S.
  • Ailments that are Legally Treatable with Medical Marijuana
  • Determining Whether Your Ailment Qualifies for Medical Marijuana

A Brief History of Medical Cannabis in the U.S.

The history of medical cannabis in the U.S. dates back to before the country attained its independence. Beginning in the early 17th century, settlers who arrived from Europe brought cannabis to the first colony – Jamestown, Virginia.

Cannabis was widely grown in Colonial America, primarily for industrial purposes. However, having been used elsewhere for medical purposes for thousands of years, early Americans also recognized that the plant held therapeutic properties.

Eventually, marijuana even earned its inclusion in the 1850 edition of the U.S. Pharmacopoeia — an official authority for prescription and over-the-counter medicines — and was described as being beneficial for conditions like nausea, rheumatism, and labor pains. It remained there until 1942.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in the U.S., marijuana was widely used as a medicine. It was found primarily in the form of oil or hashish, and taken orally.

So, what changed?

First, public attitudes on marijuana started to shift in the early 1900s following an influx of Mexican immigrants after the Mexican Revolution. The newcomers brought with them their cultural tradition of smokable marijuana, something new to Americans, and fear and bias led to marijuana and those who consumed it being vilified.

Some historians have also suggested that the effort to destroy cannabis was spearheaded by powerful businessmen like William Randolph Hearst, who had lumber and paper holdings and were looking to get rid the competing hemp industry.

Together, these factors contributed to cannabis eventually being highly restricted and eventually prohibited. Local and state jurisdictions began passing laws in the early 20th century that either restricted the non-medical use of marijuana or banned its use completely.

Then came the big blow. In 1937, federal lawmakers passed the Marihuana Tax Act, a bill that heavily taxed commercial transactions involving cannabis. The move essentially killed the cannabis market, including operations around its use for medical purposes. Shortly after, in 1942, cannabis was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia.

Penalties for possessing cannabis continued to increase as years went on, including the Boggs and Narcotic Control Acts in the 1950s setting harsh mandatory sentences.

It was in 1970 that cannabis officially became prohibited under federal law with the passing of the Controlled Substances Act. That law is still in place today, and cannabis continues to be classified under the law as a Schedule I substance, a category reserved for substances with no acknowledged medical properties that carry a high risk of addiction.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that cannabis started to make its return. Despite cannabis remaining illegal under federal law, individual states began passing their own legislation permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. In the 22 years since, 29 states as well as Washington, D.C. have enacted similar legislation allowing for marijuana to be used for medical reasons.

The 30 states that have passed their own marijuana laws are able to operate without fear of the federal government interfering thanks to the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, legislation that prevents federal prosecutors from using federal funding to interfere with state-legal medical cannabis operations.

Sixteen other states, while not allowing full marijuana, have passed laws permitting marijuana that is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) for limited medical purposes. These states include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The use and acceptance of medical marijuana continues to evolve, and the expansion of medical marijuana legalization in the U.S. is far from finished. Voters in Missouri and likely North Dakota will have the opportunity to bring legal medical marijuana to their own states in the upcoming November election.

Ailments that are Legally Treatable with Medical Marijuana

Throughout the 30 states with comprehensive medical marijuana laws, there are over 50 different conditions or symptoms that are legally treatable with medical marijuana.

The ailments that qualify for medical marijuana vary by state. Most state programs have a set list of conditions they deem treatable for medical marijuana. A few — California, Maryland, and Oklahoma — also allow medical marijuana for any condition a doctor feels would be beneficial.

Of the 50-plus conditions that are legally treatable with medical marijuana in the U.S., there are a handful that marijuana is clearly most frequently used for. These 10 ailments are the most common ones that are legalized for medical marijuana.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in the U.S. The progressive disease causes brain cells to degenerate and die, destroying memory, behavior, and thinking.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease can use medical marijuana to better manage the depression, anxiety, and irritability that can make days difficult. Cannabis can also be beneficial for treating or preventing Alzheimer’s disease by slowing the production of beta-amyloid proteins, reducing the build up of plaques and tangles, and increasing glucose uptake in the brain.


Cachexia, or “wasting syndrome,” is the marked weight loss caused by another serious illness, such as cancer, HIV and AIDS, or Crohn’s disease. At least 23 states have approved medical marijuana specifically for the treatment of cachexia, while others allow cannabis for the conditions that can cause cachexia.

The THC found in medical marijuana boosts appetite and makes eating more enjoyable, a benefit for patients with cachexia who are looking to increase body weight and energy levels.


Every year in the U.S. there are over 1.6 million new cases of cancer, a group of diseases related to abnormal cells dividing and growing uncontrollably. Nearly every state with legal medical marijuana includes cancer in their list of conditions that qualify.

Medical marijuana offers multiple benefits for cancer patients. Marijuana has the capability of helping cancer patients manage the nausea, pain, and weight loss that often accommodates cancer treatments. Some research even suggests that cannabis can limit the growth of, or kill, cancer cells.

Epilepsy and Seizure Disorders

Epilepsy is by far one of the most common qualifying conditions for medical marijuana and is approved in almost every state. The central nervous system disorder can impact people of all ages, and is characterized by a disruption in brain nerve activity that causes seizures.

Over recent years, a large percentage of studies related to cannabis have focused on its potential for epilepsy and seizures disorders, including Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Medical experts have found that the cannabinoids in cannabis may be a safe and well-tolerated therapeutic treatment for reducing or even eliminating seizure activity in both children and adults.


One of the leading causes of blindness in the U.S., glaucoma is an eye condition characterized by abnormally high pressure in the eye that gradually causes damage to the optic nerve. A large majority of states with medical marijuana include glaucoma as an approved condition.

Medical marijuana appears to decrease intraocular pressure to protect the optic nerve from permanent damage in patients diagnosed with glaucoma. Cannabis drops can be applied directly to the eyes.


HIV is a virus that damages the body’s own immune system cells, and AIDS is the most advanced stage of the infection. While medical experts have found how to dramatically slow the disease’s progress, medical marijuana can help manage the treatment side effects.

A majority of states have made medical marijuana legal for treating the often times debilitating symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS treatment regimens, such as cachexia, nausea, and fatigue.


Marijuana has long been recognized as beneficial for suppressing nausea. Studies have even shown it can help reduce the anticipatory nausea experienced by cancer patients before they begin a chemotherapy session.

Because of its effectiveness, medical marijuana is commonly recommended for nausea and most states include nausea in their list of approved conditions.


While there are various types of pain — including chronic and acute, and neuropathic and nociceptive — many have been approved by most states as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

Marijuana is widely used for pain management, and many studies have backed up its effectiveness at lowering all types of pain, including the pain that’s shown to be resistant to other treatments.


While PTSD is most commonly associated with war veterans, it can impact anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Because of marijuana’s ability to ease the symptoms associated with PTSD, most states include the mental health condition as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana.

Medical marijuana can help ease the emotional impact of traumatic events by reducing anxiety and fear, and improving the ability to sleep.


Spasms are by far one of the most common ailments that medical cannabis is recommended for by doctors.

While the involuntary contractions and stiffness from muscle spasms can be distressing and eventually lead to serious joint mobility issues, marijuana can offer relief by reducing the frequency and intensity of spasms, including those associated with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Determining Whether Your Ailment Qualifies for Medical Marijuana

Patients are increasingly interested in exploring cannabis for their particular ailments once they learn about its therapeutic potential. Thanks to expanding medical marijuana legalization, more Americans than ever have the opportunity to benefit from cannabis’s medicinal properties.

If you’re interested in joining the more than 2.2 million Americans who are using medical marijuana, you first need to understand the steps to getting approved. The process isn’t complicated, but requires just a little bit of time to navigate.

First, understand that you can only legally use medical marijuana if you:

  • Live in one of the 30 states where it has been legalized.
  • Are diagnosed with an ailment that qualifies for medical marijuana in your state.
  • Obtain a written recommendation from an approved doctor.

The first step in figuring out if you can use marijuana for medical purposes is to see whether it’s legal in the state where you live. Check to see whether your state is listed below:

Next, you’ll need to check whether your ailment, disease, disorder, or a symptom is qualified for medical marijuana in your state. The conditions and ailments that are approved for medical marijuana vary by state.

For up to date information on which ailments are approved for medical marijuana where you live, you can click on your state above or visit our education page.

The final step is to discuss medical marijuana with your doctor and request that they write you a written recommendation. This is different than a prescription. Because marijuana is not considered an approved medication by the FDA, doctors provide a “recommendation” that authorizes you to move forward in the approval process.

Your doctor may also suggest certain marijuana strains or products that lend themselves better for your particular ailment.

In some states, like California, that doctor’s recommendation is enough to purchase medical marijuana from a dispensary. Others require that you submit that recommendation, and in some cases an application fee, to the state’s respective registry. In exchange, the registry will issue you a medical marijuana “card” that can be used to gain entry into a dispensary.

Learn More

There’s an abundance of information available on ailments that can benefit from medical marijuana. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to visit the Medical Marijuana, Inc. Education Page. Learn more about the basics of growing and using cannabis through our Cannabis 101 Page.