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What's the Difference Between Marinol and Medical Marijuana?

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Last Updated: 10/18/2019

Marinol is a prescription drug containing the active ingredient dronabinol, a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the main psychoactive (brain altering) ingredient in marijuana. It is responsible for the "high" some users seek. However, THC also has powerful medicinal capabilities, which is why scientists created Marinol decades ago as a legal alternative to cannabis in the United States.

Where Is Marinol Legal?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Marinol for medical uses in 1985. Since then, the drug has been legal in all 50 states. Because it is a regulated pharmaceutical drug, you need a prescription to purchase and use Marinol.

It is against the law to sell or give Marinol away, or to use the drug without a prescription. The improper possession or distribution of prescription drugs can result in criminal charges and the need for a criminal defense lawyer.

How Is Marinol Used?

Marinol and generic dronabinol are approved by the FDA to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy, as well as weight loss-related anorexia and loss of appetite in AIDS patients. Off-label and clinical trial uses for Marinol include treatment for:

  • Fibromyalgia pain
  • Glaucoma-related eye pressure
  • Menstrual migraines
  • Postoperative nausea and vomiting
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Muscle spasticity related to multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Neuropathic chronic pain

Because Marinol contains the psychoactive ingredient THC, it can cause serious side effects, including psychosis, especially in people who have a history of mental illness, as well as blood pressure issues. Talk to a doctor immediately about any adverse effects while taking Marinol.

The Differences Between Marijuana and Marinol

There are many differences between the natural plant marijuana (cannabis) and the synthetic cannabinoid Marinol. Legally speaking, the biggest difference is that marijuana is illegal — even for medicinal uses — under federal law, while Marinol can be prescribed legally in any state.

Marinol is a Schedule III drug, which means the government has determined that it has a moderate-to-low risk for dependency. The government still considers marijuana a Schedule I drug, meaning it is not currently accepted for medical use and carries a high risk of abuse.

Beyond the law, other differences include:

  • THC occurs naturally in marijuana, while it is chemically engineered in Marinol
  • Medical marijuana can be smoked, inhaled as a mist, eaten, applied to the skin, or placed under the tongue. Marinol can only be taken in pill form
  • Marijuana has many cannabinoids in addition to THC, while Marinol only contains THC
  • Medical marijuana has a faster absorption rate than Marinol, but Marinol remains in the blood for longer than marijuana
  • A 2013 study suggested that taking THC in pill form could be more effective at pain relief than smoking THC
  • Marinol and generic dronabinol are generally believed to have more intense side effects than natural cannabis

Making a Choice Between Marinol and Marijuana

Individuals who have a medical need and live in a state that has approved medical cannabis should weigh the potential benefits and drawbacks of both medical marijuana and Marinol to determine which option is right for them. Of course, seek medical advice before starting or stopping any medication, including cannabis.

It's important to note that Marinol and generic dronabinol should not be used by anyone other than the patient for whom they were prescribed.