Cannabis, generally known as marijuana, is a psychoactive narcotic that many people use for recreational purposes as well as for its alleged medicinal benefits. But what do the most recent studies have to say about it? Do the risks outweigh the advantages?
At the time of writing, 36 states and four territories in the United States had legalized cannabis-derived products for medicinal use. In addition, cannabis is legal for recreational use in 18 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia.
Although many people interchangeably use the terms “cannabis” and “marijuana,” the latter has racist roots and implications dating back nearly a century.
According to the Pew Research Center, nine out of ten Americans support legalizing marijuana in some manner. In the same study, 18% of Americans, or 48.2 million people, said they had used cannabis in the previous year, with 11% indicating they had done so in the previous month. Only 46% of those polled said they’ve ever tried cannabis.
People have used cannabis for at least 5,000 years, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And, while overall cannabis use remains constant in the broader population, it is increasing among college students. In 2020, 44% of them said they had used cannabis in the previous year, the highest percentage in over 35 years.
Many people clearly appreciate the euphoric effects of cannabis and use it for recreational purposes. According to the most recent figures, there are 22.2 million recreational users in the United States. Meanwhile, the number of people who use medical cannabis is estimated to be over 5.4 million.
Cannabis research in the U.S.
Cannabis is currently classified as a Schedule I restricted substance in the United States. A substance must have “no currently recognised medicinal use and a high potential for abuse” to be classified at this category.
It’s a contentious classification because it lumps this drug along with heroin, methaqualone, LSD, and MDMA (ecstasy).
This has made doing rigorous clinical cannabis research in the United States challenging, and it might be difficult for the average person to find conclusive information about the health effects of cannabis.
However, with so many states legalizing cannabis, research is picking up speed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expressed its support for clinical trials of medications derived from cannabis components.
Because the FDA is responsible for the research and safety of medical medicines, it has not considered the health consequences of recreational cannabis.
“They have one foot on the accelerator and another on the brake,” Dr. Tom Curran of Upstate Medical University in New York told Medical News Today of the FDA’s position.
Until recently, all cannabis used in research in the United States came from a single source: a growing facility at the University of Mississippi.
The value of using cannabis for research has been questioned by certain specialists. Dr. Sue Sisley, a cannabis researcher, described it as “anemic greenish powder” and said it’s “extremely tough to overcome the placebo effect when you have anything that diluted,” according to NPR.
The cannabis grown at the university is less than half as powerful as the average cannabis accessible today, and even less in the case of extracts like edibles.
As a result, any research based on the University of Mississippi’s research stock may underreport its impacts, whether favorable or negative, increasing to the uncertainty of current studies. As a result, the federal National Institute on Drug Abuse has been in the midst of a lengthy contracting procedure with different vendors since May.
The following institutions, according to Dr. Curran, have publicly called for the removal of such barriers to high-quality cannabis research:
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine
- New England Journal of Medicine
- American Medical Student Association
- American Nurses Association
- American Public Health Association
Medical cannabis research: In search of answers
Whether a person wants to use cannabis for recreational purposes or for medical reasons, it’s natural to want to know if it’s safe to do so. Medical cannabis research, which assesses the advantages and hazards of the drug, is the best source of such knowledge.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) undertook a review in 2017 that looked at over 10,000 scientific publications on the medical benefits and side effects of cannabis that were published in 2016. This study is still the most detailed on the health consequences of marijuana.
Researchers conducted a similar analysis with data from 2016 to 2019 in 2021. “We identified few recent studies completed inside U.S. populations [that] were of considerable rigor and quality to advance the evidence base for numerous clinical disorders,” they concluded.
In this article, we examine the most recent trustworthy studies on cannabis’ medical benefits to determine its health benefits and hazards, in an attempt to answer what appears to be a straightforward question: is cannabis good or bad?
CBD vs. Cannabis
Before we go any further, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding: what is the relationship between cannabis and CBD, both of which are derived from the same plant, Cannabis sativa? Is it possible that they are the same thing?
No, they are not.
There are 450 compounds in Cannabis sativa, including a family of 80–100 molecules known as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids interact with the endocannabinoid system in the brain, which controls a number of functions such as mood, sleep, memory, and appetite.
The following are the major cannabinoids found in the plant:
- delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis
- cannabidiol (CBD), which is believed to be anti-psychoactive and may moderate or control anxiety, chronic pain, sleep issues, and addictive impulses
When people refer to cannabis, they are referring to both THC and cannabidiol, as well as any other compound of the cannabis sativa plant.
The FDA has so far approved four medications containing cannabinoids:
- Epidiolex contains a purified form of CBD and treats seizures associated with two types of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndromand Dravet syndrome.
- Marinol and Syndros contain synthetic THC, or dronabinol, and treat post-cancer chemotherapy nausea and vomiting.
- Cesamet contains synthetic nabilone, which is similar to THC and addresses appetite and weight loss in people with HIV.
Hemp is made up of Cannabis sativa plants with very little THC, and it is the source of a lot of CBD. According to a Gallup poll conducted in 2019, 14 percent of Americans consume CBD, with sales expected to reach $61 billion by 2027.
Many medical claims have been made in support of CBD, but many of them have yet to be clinically verified, owing to the challenges that cannabis research faces.
What are the medical advantages of marijuana?
Cannabis may be beneficial in the treatment of the following illnesses, according to research.
Pain that lasts a long time
The use of medical cannabis to relieve chronic pain was one of the subjects of the 2017 NAS research.
According to the findings, cannabis or cannabinoid-containing medications can effectively treat neuropathic pain caused by injured nerves.
Beyond that, “there is limited evidence that cannabis works to treat most types of acute or chronic pain,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Depression, PTSD, and social anxiety are all symptoms of depression.
While some have suggested that cannabis can be used as an antidepressant, a study published in 2020 found little evidence to support this theory – in fact, it concluded that the opposite is more likely the case.
The first FDA-approved, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial evaluating cannabis’ effectiveness in treating PTSD was released in March 2021.
It was found that veterans who smoked cannabis had no more improvement in the intensity of their PTSD symptoms than those who took a placebo.
Veterans who smoked cannabis, on the other hand, were 2.57 times more likely to no longer qualify as having PTSD, according to a nonplacebo study published in December 2020.
A study released in April 2021 that included eight small trials looking into the use of cannabis as a treatment for social anxiety concluded that there was insufficient evidence of its effectiveness as an anti-anxiety intervention. Regular cannabis users may be at a greater risk of social anxiety, according to a 2017 NAS study.
It’s also worth noting that, according to a 2017 study published in Clinical Psychology Review, cannabis is not suggested as a treatment for people suffering from psychotic disorders.
In a randomized, controlled research conducted in 2021, it was shown that smoking cannabis on days when alcohol is drunk lowered the quantity of alcohol drank by a third and cut the number of binge-drinking days in half.
However, according to the 2017 NAS assessment, cannabis usage may increase the likelihood of hazardous use and dependency on other substances.
Drugs like Marinol and Syndros, which include cannabinoids, have been shown to reduce nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy.
There has been and continues to be a significant amount of research into the use of cannabis in cancer treatment.
It appears to be able to stop cancer cells from growing in vitro and in animals, according to some promising data. Some evidence suggests, however, that cannabis components that kill one type of cancer may promote the growth of another.
At the time of writing, Nabiximols, a medicine combining equal parts THC and cannabidiol and sold around the world as Sativex, is in phase 3 clinical trials in the United States.
The drug is used as a second-line treatment for spasticity symptoms when initial multiple sclerosis medications are ineffective.
However, no clinical benefit from smoking cannabis for treating MS symptoms has been found thus far.
As previously stated, Epidiolex has been approved by the FDA for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
What are the medicinal dangers of marijuana?
Studies that have looked into unfavorable links between cannabis usage and health are on the other end of the spectrum.
Mental health issues
Anecdotal evidence suggests that consuming cannabis can assist people suffering from bipolar disorder (BD) manage their symptoms.
However, there is a growing body of research linking it to more severe bipolar episodes, as well as psychotic symptoms, rapid mood cycling, suicide attempts, a decrease in long-term BD remission, greater impairment, and overall poorer functioning.
Fortunately, these associations only endure as long as people smoke cannabis.
A June 2021 NIH research of persons aged 18–35 years discovered a clear link between cannabis use and increased suicide ideation and attempts, particularly among women. Whether or not the person was depressed before to using cannabis had no influence.
THC may cause schizophrenia and psychosis in people at risk, according to a meta-study of available studies published in 2020. There was some evidence that CBD can help with some illnesses’ symptoms.
The analyses’ main conclusion was that more research is needed to better understand the connection between cannabis and these illnesses.
In a 2017 research of people with schizophrenia and other psychoses, it was discovered that a history of cannabis usage was connected to increased performance on learning and memory tests.
A study published in January 2021 by the University of Queensland looked into how using cannabis on a regular basis can alter people’s life. According to the findings, people who smoked daily or weekly were more likely to:
- partake in high risk alcohol consumption
- smoke cigarettes
- take other illicit drugs
- not be in a relationship at 35 years of age
- be depressed
- not have a job
Cannabis use disorder
While cannabis is not typically addictive, there is evidence that the more people use it, the more likely they are to develop a dependent on it, a condition known as “cannabis use disorder.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of every ten cannabis smokers develops the disorder, and this is especially true among young people.
Lung and testicular cancer
The 2017 NAS study found evidence of an increased risk of testicular cancer’s slow-growing seminoma subtype.
Other compounds in smoke, such as benzopyrene, benzanthracene, vinyl chlorides, phenols, and nitrosamines, may have contributed to this, according to more recent research.
The study suggests that more epidemiological research into the probable link to cannabis is needed, with smoke-free vaping as an ingestion vehicle being considered.
When cannabis is smoked rather than eaten or vaped, the same chemicals may increase the risk of lung cancer. The National Institute of Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health, on the other hand, reports that there is little persuasive evidence of a link between cannabis and lung cancer:
“While a few small, uncontrolled studies have suggested that heavy, regular [cannabis] smoking could increase [the] risk for respiratory cancers, well-designed population studies have failed to find an increased risk of lung cancer associated with [cannabis] use.”
Although regular cannabis use has been related to an increased risk of chronic cough, it is unclear if smoking cannabis affects lung function or raises the risk of COPD or asthma.
Is cannabis healthy for your health or dangerous for your health?
Both the health benefits and the negative consequences of cannabis have been documented. It’s also clear that some statements about the drug’s effects are exaggerated at best and incorrect at worst.
While many people enjoy smoking cannabis for recreational purposes, more and better study is clearly needed to properly comprehend its health implications.
Before taking cannabis, if you reside in a state where it is legal, you and your doctor should carefully assess the different claimed advantages and hazards, as well as how they apply to your diagnosis and health history.
Additionally, always see your doctor before starting any new medication.