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Medical cannabis has now become legal in an increasing number of states, which means more consumers than ever are able to try these products. As such, they need to properly understand how to individualize its use and dosage for themselves.  Self-medication is the most common method of medical cannabis use, but since it typically does not occur in a controlled setting such as a laboratory or hospital, there are very limited data to understand this practice. To avoid problems with overuse or misuse, consumers should be guided by an educated physician who specializes in medical cannabis and will discuss the most appropriate and personalized approach. This include the various chemovars associated with different relative amounts of THC vs. CBD as well as the most appropriate route of administration (e.g., smoking, vaporization, edibles…). For self-titration, medical experts advise the “start low and go slow” approach when identifying the right dosage for each molecule to provide the most benefits with the fewest side effects.  

There has been a dramatic shift in the regulation of medical cannabis in the United States, beginning when California legalized its use with the recommendation of a physician in 1996. Since then, medical cannabis has become legal in an increasing number of states, which means more consumers than ever are able to try these products for themselves. Because cannabis remains categorized as a Schedule I drug by the federal government, consumers are likely miseducated or undereducated about its medical potential. 1 Consumers need to properly understand the plant’s chemical constituents and also how to individualize its proper use and dosage for themselves.  

Cannabis plants produce more than 500 active compounds including phytocannabinoids (e.g., delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC), delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ8-THC), cannabidiol (CBD)) which are responsible for its recreational and medical uses, as well as other organic compounds, such as flavonoids and terpenoids, which produce cannabis’ color, taste, and aroma. The relative proportions and amounts of these molecules may also vary depending on the specific types of cannabis plant being grown, and thus consumers should be aware of the differences in various chemically-distinct cultivars, or “chemovars.2 Δ9-THC and CBDthe most-investigated compounds, act differently on the endocannabinoid system, specifically on the receptors CB1 and CB2 (CB1R, CB2R) which are widely distributed throughout the human body. 3 CB1R are most abundant in the gastrointestinal tractwhile CB2R are primarily expressed on immune cells and tissues, and both are found in the central nervous system (CNS). 4,5 Δ9-THC and CBD also act in opposite ways; Δ9-THC activates pathways associated with feelings of euphoria, whereas CBD does not. 6,7  

Self-medication is the most common method of medical cannabis use, but since it typically does not occur in a controlled setting such as a laboratory or hospital, there are limited data on this practice. Self-medication refers to one of two behaviors: 1) the conscious use of nonprescribed medication to treat a condition or 2) the use of an illicit drug to consciously or subconsciously treat a physical or psychological condition. 8 To avoid problems with cannabis overuse or misuse, consumers should be guided by an educated physician who specializes in medical cannabis and will discuss the most appropriate and personalized approach. Depending on the individual’s previous tolerance to cannabis, chosen route of administration, or susceptibility to anxiety-like symptoms, one needs to carefully understand and experiment with the various chemovars available associated with different relative amounts of Δ9-THC vs CBD.  

Titration refers to the slow and steady addition of a substance in order to accurately determine the amount which confers an effective result. For self-titration, medical experts advise the “start low and go slow” approach when identifying the right dosage for each molecule, as this will provide the most beneficial effects with the fewest side effects. 9,10 In other words, an individual seeking to self-titrate in order to maximize their chances of finding the most effective and sustainable relief should start with the smallest possible dose over the course of several days and slowly increase if needed. Furthermore, experts recommend using a journal to keep track of previous cannabis use, record the time and amount of the current product dosage, whether it was taken on an empty stomach, if other medicines were taken along with it, how long it took to feel the effects, and the overall changes compared with previous dose level. 11  The use of the Releaf AppTM, developed in 2016, is another way to identify the most effective productstrack the best dosing and administration methods, and improve self-directed medical cannabis experience. 12 

There are several methods of administration one can use to self-administer medical cannabis products, each with potential benefits and drawbacks. While inhalation of smoked cannabis is fast and convenient method of self-titratingtoxic compounds such as tar or carbon monoxide may exacerbate existing health issues (especially when combined with tobacco). 13,14 Aalternative is vaporization or volatilization, which reduces the production of harmful biproducts while still offering rapid delivery into the bloodstream to maximize its therapeutic potential. 15 The use of cannabis-infused edibles (e.g., cookies, candies, beverages) have increased in recent years due to the perception that they are safer than smoking have a longer duration of action.16 However, edible products may be a challenge for self-titration, as the amounts of active molecules are often inexact, and they may be associated with unintentional overdosing, resulting in hallucinations, delusions and anxiety in some individuals. 17,18 Other methods of administration such as topicals, suppositories, or concentrates are available to consumers, but these require further study before they are reliable for self-titration 

Several studies have evaluated self-administration of cannabis in the context of pathological disease as well as for improving quality of life, specifically focusing on the management of pain, anxiety, and depression. 19 A study of patients with advanced cancer showed that self-titration to an optimal dose of Δ9-THC:CBD was more beneficial in relieving pain than a placebo control. 20 Another study of patients with cancer using a Δ9-THC/CBD oromucosal spray also showed an benefit from self-medication, with improvement of insomnia, pain, and fatigue without needing to increase their non-cannabis pain medication. 21 Using the Releaf App as a self-titration tool, patients experienced a greater benefit to pain management, agitation/irritability, and anxiety from cannabis flower with higher THC levels compared to other types of cannabis products. 22,23 A similar study of people suffering from insomnia showed that self-titration with vaporization was more effective than smoking, while chemovars with higher CBD were equally effective as those with higher THC. 24  This suggests that consumers should expect different effects from self-titrating medical cannabis products depending on the type of symptoms they are looking to manage. 

With more states approving recreational and medical cannabis, there is a critical need to further investigate the benefits and drawbacks of cannabis self-administration among consumers. While low dosages have shown to be beneficial, several reports have indicated that high dosage and/or increased frequency was associated with greater number of psychological outcomes and potential self-dependence. 25-30 Additional research in this area is necessary, and all consumers should consult with a physician specializing in medical cannabis when embarking on any self-titration approach. 


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Author Yoel H. Sitbon

Yoel is a Medical Writer in the Medical Content division at Csequence. His scientific expertise is in Neuroscience (neural mechanisms behind drug addiction) and Molecular & Cellular Pharmacology (molecular mechanisms behind mutations induced cardiovascular diseases). Yoel has over five years of scientific writing experience as evidenced by 8 peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals. He is an effective oral communicator having presented his PhD thesis work at many biomedical conferences nationally. He also has strong mentorship and leadership experience. Yoel has a B.S in Neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in Molecular & Cellular Pharmacology at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine.

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