Regardless on which side of the debate you stand, the fact remains that people have relied on marijuana as a medical treatment for over 3,000 years. Today, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still doesn’t recognize the cannabis plant as safe or effective for treating certain ailments. This likely won’t change as long as the federal government identifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug.
Cannabidiol, on the other hand, is a substance found in marijuana that the FDA approved in June 2018 to treat certain types of epilepsy. This is a big step in the right direction. As states around the country legalize medical marijuana use, the tension increases between those who believe the medicinal value of cannabis is significant and those who want more research into its long-term effects.
Let’s look at what we know to date about both the benefits and risks of using cannabis.
Scientific research shows encouraging results that marijuana benefits patients with certain conditions. Here are a few.
Researchers from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine reviewed over 10,000 scientific studies into the benefits and side effects of using cannabis as a treatment for chronic pain. They identified chronic pain as continuous, nagging pain, not the overwhelming pain caused by certain diseases. They found that using marijuana or products containing some of its cannabinoids (the active ingredients in cannabis) resulted in pain relief. The reasoning is that the cannabinoids work on certain receptors in the brain that relieve chronic pain. With over 25 million people in the United States suffering from chronic pain, it is the leading cause of disability amongst adults.
Studies found cannabinoids help relieve nausea and vomiting of patients receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer. However, the studies have been small to date. Other studies found that when patients inhale the marijuana smoke or vapors, it helps relieve neuropathic pain caused by damaged nerves. Recent research performed in laboratory dishes shows that some cannabinoids in cannabis can slow the growth of certain cancer cells or even kill those cells. And in laboratory animal studies, cannabinoids slowed the growth and reduced the spread of some cancers. Finally, clinical trials with cancer patients show that those who take marijuana as a pain reliever require less pain medicine than those who don’t.
As previously mentioned, the FDA approved a medication containing cannabidiol (CBD), a cannabinoid in marijuana, as an effective treatment for two types of epilepsy. Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome are both rare and severe forms of epilepsy, and children suffering from them have a high rate of drug-resistant seizures and a high mortality rate. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found children with these types of epilepsy who took CBD as treatment had far fewer seizures than those who took a placebo. In fact, seizures reduced from an average of over 12 per month to around 6 for 43 percent of those taking CBD. While children receiving the placebo also saw a reduction in seizures, it was very slight—from 15 seizures per month to 14. Researchers studied 120 children and teenagers between the ages of 2 and 18 for 14 weeks in what they state is the first rigorous scientific study to show the positive effect of CBD.
The National Multiple Sclerosis Society reports on its website that several studies have proven medical marijuana effective for treating muscle spasticity and stiffness in stable MS sufferers. In one particular study, 144 people received an oral cannabis extract while 135 people received a placebo for a 12 week treatment. Those taking the extract reported significant improvement in muscle stiffness, body pain, spasms, and sleep quality, resulting in a profound impact on quality of life. A European study found an oral spray, Sativex, had a significant positive effect on spasticity in people with MS. This was a well-controlled clinical trial with positive results on its effectiveness to treat MS-related spasticity. Sativex is now available in 15 countries and approved in 12 others, but not in the US.
Mental health issues
In a report issued in the February 2017 volume of Clinical Psychology Review, researchers studied 31 articles on the use of cannabis as a therapeutic measure for mental health issues. They found a potential for using medical marijuana to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the general population and in veterans in particular. Sixteen states in the US have legalized medical marijuana to date as a treatment for PTSD. Symptom severity and frequency improved dramatically for those ingesting medical marijuana, and two patients reported complete remission of their nightmares.
Those suffering from depression and anxiety found a reduction in aversive memories, fear, and anxiety when cannabinoids stimulate receptors in the prefrontal cortex.
Alcohol and drug addiction
Also published in the February 2017 volume of Clinical Psychology Review, researchers looked at over 30 reports and found that medical marijuana can be a substitute for those suffering from substance abuse like alcohol and opioid addiction. Called “harm reduction strategy,” substituting marijuana for opioids or alcohol has proven valuable in treating addiction in most European countries and Canada. CNN recently reported a Los Angeles-based treatment center called High Sobriety uses medicinal cannabis as a detox and maintenance program for those with severe addictions. And the journal Health Affairs reported a 2016 study that found there were 1,826 fewer painkillers prescribed per year in states with legalized medical marijuana, as compared to non-legalized states.
Harvard Medical School published an article on medical marijuana in which they report health-afflicted people claim cannabis allows them to resume normal activities. Patients in the report suffered from Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, interstitial cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and pain and wasting syndrome associated with HIV. While this list is not all inclusive, we need to evaluate patients’ claims of the benefits of medical marijuana.
With legalized medical marijuana and, in some states, recreational use come an increase in people getting high. Studies have shown that certain populations should abstain from cannabis in any form, particularly pregnant women and children. For example, a study in Prevention Science found that parents who smoke marijuana, even if they’ve cut back drastically, have children with a higher instance of weed use. Children and teenagers who use pot have a higher rate of health problems.
Here are some other health risks associated with cannabis reported by the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC claims for every 10 pot users, 1 person will get addicted. That number increases to 1 in 6 if you start smoking before the age of 18. Those who become addicted have an increased risk of negative consequences from using marijuana, such as difficulty with attention, memory, and learning. And among those who get addicted, some will need to consume more and more cannabis to get high. Studies need done to determine the health effects of a high concentration of THC in high potency pot on the brain and body.
Getting high, in the short-term, causes memory problems, attention deficits, and learning issues. Especially in teenagers, marijuana use affects brain development, particularly how the brain makes connections between those areas needed for memory, attention, and learning. It’s not known if the effects are lasting or permanent. It depends on the level of THC in cannabis, how often you consume it, and how young you were when you start smoking.
When you smoke marijuana, the smoke contains elements that can harm lung tissues. There are many of the same carcinogens, irritants, and toxins in pot as found in cigarettes. You’re also more likely to contract bronchitis, a cough, and exacerbated phlegm production. Not enough is known about second-hand smoke from cannabis smokers. Some studies have found THC in the blood of young children living in a home with someone who smokes marijuana.
Using cannabis can make your heart beat faster, which could lead to an increased risk of heart disease or stroke. Similar to how cigarette smoke is dangerous and harmful to your cardiovascular system, those who smoke weed might inhale similar harmful substances like irritants and chemicals contained in the smoke. We need more research to determine the full impact on your cardiovascular system.
Frequent use and high doses of cannabis have been known to cause temporary psychosis. When high, users are more likely to not know what is real, see hallucinations, and exhibit paranoia. The CDC reports that marijuana use is also associated with long-lasting mental disorders like schizophrenia. Reportedly, teen pot use has been linked to depression and anxiety and even suicide. The CDC states it’s not known whether this is a causal relationship or an association.
Some marijuana users experience severe nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain, called CHS. The Annals of Internal Medicine reported that 18.5% of people studied who inhaled pot ended up in a Colorado hospital emergency room with CHS symptoms. And 8.4% of those who ingested an edible cannabis product ended up in the emergency room with CHS symptoms. While many people go years without experiencing CHS, once you do, the symptoms recur until you stop using marijuana.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported in its massive study, “There is limited evidence of a statistical association between current, frequent, or chronic cannabis smoking and non-seminoma-type testicular germ cell tumors.” There were drawbacks to the study, including several limitations like not controlling for the same confounders and relying on self-reports from study participants without separate biological validation.
Before you worry about developing testicular cancer or a psychotic illness from your cannabis consumption, learn the risks. You’re at a higher risk if you start using weed at a young age, you smoke really potent strains like skunk, you use it often, you’ve used it for a long time, and you have other risk factors like a family history of schizophrenia.
And just like drinking alcohol, you are more likely to be injured in a traffic accident when driving under the influence of marijuana, so don’t consume and drive.
We need more clinical trials and other research to better understand the health benefits and risks of cannabis. But with the Drug Enforcement Agency classifying marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, the hopes of finding funding for more studies are limited.