The Current State of Cannabis Science

Cannabis researchA few months ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a study of studies, reporting on the cumulative research to date on marijuana in a paper titled “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” There was some initial buzz, but only recently has the media really dug into the report — including a well-written summary by Vox’s German Lopez as part of his 4/20 reporting.

The report examined both positive and negative health claims related to cannabis. First, here’s a look at some of the baseline conclusions:

  • Potential Negative Effects of Using Marijuana:
    • Research does not show cannabis increases the risk of cancer, except for one subtype of testicular cancer for which there is moderate evidence of increased risk.
    • No clear answer if cannabis has any effect on the cardiometabolic system (heart attacks, strokes, diabetes).
    • Smoking cannabis is associated with chronic coughs, but not clear if it leads to asthma or harms lung functioning.
    • Limited evidence regarding cannabis effects on the immune system.
    • Cannabis does increase the risk of automobile accidents.
    • Cannabis use by pregnant women is associated with lower birth weights in offspring.
    • Cannabis use by adolescents is related to lower level academic achievement and decreased future income.
    • Cannabis use likely slightly increases the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses, but it does not increase the risk of developing depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
  • Potential Therapeutic Effects of Using Marijuana
    • Cannabis is effective as an antiemetic (anti-nausea) for people undergoing chemotherapy.
    • Patients with chronic pain consistently report a reduction in symptoms.
    • Patients with multiple sclerosis report a decrease in spasticity symptoms.

The report examined a bevy of other claimed therapeutic uses for marijuana, but the research did not generate sufficient information to back up those claims. For example, some of the primary data indicates cannabis use may decrease the size of certain brain and spine tumors called glioma, but with only one limited study to go on, the National Academies team didn’t have nearly sufficient evidence to show this was proven.

The overwhelming takeaway from the report was that significantly more research is needed to further understand cannabis’s effects on the human body. We have previously written about obstacles to cannabis research. There are reputational worries, where many universities still wring their hands over the politics of engaging in marijuana research. In 2014, the University of Arizona fired Suzanne Sisley, a psychiatrist studying cannabis use for PTSD, and Sisley has consistently maintained that her firing was simply because her research involved marijuana. Even when researchers have sufficient institutional backing to perform their work, the logistics of getting cannabis to study are extremely challenging. The marijuana available from the National Institute of Drug Abuse’s facility at the University of Mississippi sometimes does not even resemble marijuana as much as old dried out cooking herbs. Even though the DEA under President Obama took steps to allow other facilities to grow cannabis for research purposes, no other facilities have been approved.

All told, just about every reasonable person agrees more systematic cannabis research would be reasonable and helpful. On Saturday April 22, scientists marched in Washington, DC and elsewhere in support of “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” March participants rallied for many topics, including marijuana research. The cannabis industry should continue to support these efforts — good science is always beneficial.

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