(CNN) -- On Tuesday, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. The referendums come at a time when more than a third of states have approved the cannabis plant for medicinal purposes.
Proponents for legalizing marijuana tout its pain-relieving benefits and use by cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments; opponents stress that science has yet to prove the drug is safe.
It's a bit like the fairytale, "Jack and the Beanstalk." This "magic" plant that could help with everything from glaucoma to Lou Gehrig's disease could also contain unknown dangers to our heart, lungs and brain.
The real question is, if we legalize marijuana, will we all live happily ever after?
The Drug Enforcement Administration lists (PDF) marijuana under the Schedule I category of controlled substances, meaning it has a high potential for abuse, has no currently accepted medical purpose in the United States and is not deemed safe for use.
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The DEA's stance has made it difficult for scientists to push forward national clinical trials on the drug. In 2009, the American Medical Association urged the government to review marijuana's classification with "the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines" to no avail.
Still, in the last three years, more than 6,000 studies have been published in scientific journals about the cannabis plant, according to NORML, an organization that works to legalize marijuana. Much of the research has focused on the plant's effects on the body's endocannabinoid system.
The endocannabinoid system acts like a bridge between mind and body, helping different types of cells communicate with each other.
Our bodies make natural cannabinoids, or active chemicals that cause drug-like effects through the body, according to the National Cancer Institute. The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC -- works in the same way as these natural chemicals.
Dr. Julie Holland, editor of "The Pot Book," says medicinal cannabis is most often prescribed to combat nausea and stimulate appetite. It is also prescribed to manage chronic pain.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved two synthetic cannabinoid drugs for use in patients with extreme nausea: dronabinol and nabilone. Another, Sativex, is undergoing phase III clinical trials in the United States for the treatment of cancer pain.
A series of trials published by the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in May showed cannabis can help patients suffering from neuropathic pain, commonly caused by degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia. Neuropathic pain is also a common side effect of chemotherapy and radiation.
Study participants on cannabis reported a 34 to 40% decrease in pain compared to the 17 to 20% decrease seen from patients on a placebo drug.
Another study, published in the British Medical Journal in February, found a lower prevalence of Type II diabetes in marijuana users. The researchers hypothesized that cannabis lowers the risk for diabetes due to its immunomodulatory and anti-inflammatory properties.
Even with all its potential benefits, cannabis should not be viewed as a harmless substance, NORML says.
The drug's active constituents "may produce a variety of physiological and euphoric effects," the organization's website states. "As a result, there may be some populations that are susceptible to increased risks."
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that marijuana causes an increase in heart rate, which could put users at risk for a heart attack or stroke. Marijuana smoke also contains carcinogens similar to tobacco smoke.
A 2011 study published in the journal Addiction found marijuana has little long-term effect on learning and memory, according to TIME.com. The study authors followed nearly 2,000 Australian adults, aged 20 to 24, for eight years. They concluded that the adverse impacts of cannabis use (shown in earlier studies) were either related to pre-existing factors or were reversible after even extended periods of use.
Yet a similar study out of New Zealand earlier this year showed the opposite may be true for adolescent marijuana users.
The New Zealand researchers found that teens who smoked pot heavily (at least four days a week) lost an average of eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38. Adults who had smoked as teens tended to show more pronounced deficits in memory, concentration, and overall brainpower in relation to their peers.
Kids and teens' brains are still developing, Holland says, which is why they may be more vulnerable to the drug's effects.
People with a family history of mental illness are also at a greater risk for seeing the drug's mind-altering effects. A number of studies have linked chronic marijuana use to increased rates of anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, according to DrugAbuse.gov.
And a more recent study published in The American Journal of Addictions showed an association between adolescent pot smoking and an increase risk of exhibiting anti-social behavior as an adult.
The good news is that marijuana has a low rate of addiction; estimates place it at about 9% of users. And as NORML points out, "the consumption of marijuana -- regardless of quantity or potency -- cannot induce a fatal overdose."
Experts say more research is needed to determine the true benefits and long-term side effects of marijuana
DENVER – After 15 years as a white-collar “corporate nomad,” Dan Rogers found his new career in the thriving green-collar industry of Colorado, the only state in America with a for-profit medical marijuana market.
The equities trader and former investment banker now produces pot breeds “Reclining Buddha” and “Heartland Cream” in a converted printing press warehouse near downtown Denver.
In the nation’s most heavily regulated medical cannabis industry, he also works under constant video surveillance.
Electronic eyes, required by Colorado’s year-old Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division, track packaging of each shipment from Rogers’ warehouse to his four marijuana stores, called Greenwerkz.
He submits product manifests and delivery routes for state approval. Still more cameras are recording as marijuana is unpacked and his state- licensed employees sell to state-registered patients.
“Everything from seed to sales is on video,” Rogers said. “You need to know where every gram goes, where every plant is.”
In Colorado, America’s second-largest medical marijuana market behind California, marijuana capitalism flourishes under strict regulations approved by the state Legislature starting last year.
In California, dispensaries handling millions of dollars in transactions are supposed to operate as nonprofits – with medical marijuana users giving “donations” to “reimburse” operators and growers for costs.
Colorado stores simply pocket cash as profit. And, under new mandates that stores grow at least 70 percent of the marijuana they sell, weed industrialization is flourishing. It is happening despite U.S. Justice Department warnings over attempted large-scale cultivation in California or suspected medical pot profiteering in other states.
In Denver, the marijuana boom grows in old brick buildings and shuttered factories that only five years ago were being converted into artist lofts and live-work spaces for urban professionals.
A former truck and tractor parts factory now houses indoor farms for eight marijuana stores. Elsewhere, real estate broker John Wickens has leased a half-million square feet of space to medical pot entrepreneurs – including a 76,000-square-foot cultivation room for one store.
“This has helped the city tremendously,” he said. “It steadied commercial real estate. There are buildings with 40,000 square feet sitting empty. Who else is going to take it?”
Denver interim city attorney David Broadwell said the city took in $3.5 million in marijuana sales taxes last year and hundreds of thousands in local licensing fees from 300 marijuana stores and other cannabis businesses. Colorado’s medical pot market may be one-sixth of California’s, yet Broadwell said Colorado’s cannabis capitalism took the Golden State model “and put it on steroids.”
The industry worries Tom Raynes, a former deputy state attorney general and local prosecutor who heads the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council. He says Colorado pot businesses operate as an “assumption-of-risk industry” – doomed to collapse if the U.S. Justice Department, which considers all marijuana illegal, decides to intervene.
“I think they’re inviting the federal battle,” he said. “They’re poking the tiger.”
But Tom Massey, a Republican state representative from central Colorado who co-sponsored legislation regulating the industry, holds Colorado up as a national model, one that eased federal concerns by providing meticulous oversight to prevent diversion of medical marijuana to the illegal market.
“I think the feds are thinking that as long as we keep it for its intended use, they’re going to turn a blind eye,” he said.
Marijuana, also known as cannabis possesses immense health benefits and has been used as an effective medicine for thousands of years. Throughout the world, various ancient cultures such as Chinese, Greek, Arab, Indian and Native American have relied on cannabis for its medicinal benefits.
The earliest known material identified as marijuana was found in an ancient burial site from the Chou Dynasty of early China. Archaeological data reveals that cannabis was first used in Chinese medicine around 3000 B.C. Evidences of medical marijuana have also been found in Egyptian archaeological remains dated as early as the 16th century BC.
Marijuana is considered as an excellent medicine for reducing nausea that is associated with various medical condition and treatments including chronic pain and swelling. Cannabis reduces intraocular pressure by 30% for patients suffering from glaucoma.
Marijuana was first introduced into the modern world by William Brook O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician and herbalist of British India. He was the person who experimented with marijuana and wrote the first modern English medical marijuana history. After his findings, medical marijuana became a useful ingredient in many pharmaceutical products in western hemisphere. After the development of medicines for the treatment of pain, the use of marijuana was dropped and thereafter banned by the federal government in 1937.
In 1970, doctors started experimenting on medical marijuana again and found that marijuana caused a significant reduction in intraocular pressure within the eye. Between 1970 and 1980, the health departments of several states started experimenting with marijuana. Finally, in 1996,for the first time California approved marijuana for treating cancer, AIDS, chronic pain and other illnesses. In 1997, The Office of National Drug Control Policy commissioned the Institute of Medicine (IOM) to conduct a comprehensive study on the medical efficacy of cannabis.
The IOM report recognized that marijuana and its constituents possessed numerous therapeutic properties, including the ability to control pain, nausea, and anxiety. They urged the government to make it available for patients and researchers too for further study. Immediately following the IOM’s report in 1999, the White House promised to support independent research on medical marijuana.
In 2001, the regulation on accessing marijuana for medical purpose was first established by Health Canada. They defined two categories of patients who are eligible for access to medical marijuana. First category covers any symptoms associated with the physical ailments like severe pain, multiple sclerosis, and weight loss, severe nausea from cancer or HIV/AIDS infection, arthritis, and epilepsy. Second category is for applicants who have any devastating medical symptom, other than the conditions described in first category.
In 2003, the US Health and Human Service Department applied for the patent of medical marijuana cannabis and received the government approval of the same. They filed a patent application for the use of cannabinoids, the active ingredient unique to marijuana and have been used as antioxidants and neuroprotectants. Government found the cannabinoids effective at treating ischemic, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, neurological problems like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. So far, the United States of America has legalized the use of medical marijuana for 15 states and the District of Columbia followed by Washington DC and today, 60% of Americans support legalizing marijuana for medical use.