How researchers are studying cannabis for medical purposes

While the hype around legalization tends to focus on recreational use, research is only beginning to examine the effects of cannabis as medicine.

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Here’s the deal, we don’t really know a lot about the medical effects of cannabis. Sorry. Don’t blame us. 

Blame Richard Nixon. 

Back in 1970, the Nixon administration classified cannabis as an illegal, highly addictive drug with no medical value. This made conducting medical research trickier than Nixon himself.

So what do we know about studying the medical purposes of cannabis?

About 20 years ago, scientists discovered a part of your brain that responds to chemicals in cannabis. 

Those chemicals are called cannabinoids. And that part of your brain is called the endocannabinoid system. Trying saying that 10 times fast. 

Cannabinoids are all related to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (a.k.a. THC), the thing in cannabis that makes you “high.”  It’s now known that the cannabis plant contains more than 100 cannabinoids. 

As for your endocannabinoid system (seriously, what a mouthful), it plays a significant role in your body’s functions — everything from control of your heart, to your digestive, endocrine (which circulates hormones through your body), immune, nervous, and reproductive systems.

Current medical studies around cannabis now focus on finding how specific chemicals made from cannabis can be targeted to treat specific conditions.

Just how little do we know? 

Here’s an example. 

There’s some debate as to whether legalized cannabis would have a positive or negative effect on the opioid crisis. Some people stick to the old “gateway drug argument” while others believe it could be used to treat or avoid addiction, or at the very least, keep people away from the black market. 

Early research suggested that there may be a relationship between the availability of medical marijuana and opioid analgesic overdose mortality. Specifically, a NIDA-funded study published in 2014 found that from 1999 to 2010, states with medical cannabis laws experienced slower rates of increase in opioid-related death compared to states without such laws — 21% lower to be exact.

Great. Chalk up a win for good ol’ cannabis, right? Well, not so fast.

Because when the analysis was extended through 2017, they found that the trend reversed. States with medical cannabis laws experienced an overdose death rate 22.7% higher than expected.

Now, the authors of those particular studies do note that neither study provides evidence of a causal relationship between cannabis access and opioid overdose death. They suggest that the associations are probably due to factors that they didn’t measure, and they caution against drawing any definitive conclusions.

However, if you were looking for data to support either the argument for or against, we just don’t have it. We still have no idea whether legal cannabis is good or bad for the opioid crisis. It could be both or neither.

We need more data and further studies. 

What kind of medical research is currently being done around cannabis? 

Luckily, research has rapidly sped up in the wave of legalization. 

We now have studies which suggest that cannabis may be able to help with issues such as managing pain and may even be able to reduce muscle spasms in MS patients. 

It’s also of course famously been touted as an appetite stimulant. (Uh, I think we can consider that case closed, according to my roommate, Professor Munchies.)

The big problem with many of these studies is very few of them are followed by a controlled study. This is considered the best type of study as far as drugs go; because it compares one drug to another drug, or to a placebo, so you can tell if the effect is real. 

Currently, preclinical (meaning without use on humans) and clinical (testing it on people) trials with cannabis and its extracts are underway to understand how it might be effective in treating both symptoms of an illness and other conditions, such as:

  • Diseases that affect the immune system. This includes HIV/AIDS, as well as multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Inflammation
  • Pain
  • Seizures
  • Substance use disorders
  • Mental disorders

If that seems like an incredibly broad range of medical purposes for cannabis, that’s because it is. The breadth of the types of studies surrounding cannabis speak to just how little we understand about the plant, and just how detrimental criminalization has been to progress medical research. 

Will the FDA ever approve cannabis for medical purposes? 

Probably not any time soon. The FDA requires carefully conducted studies which include hundreds of thousands of human subjects to determine the benefits and risks of a possible medication. 

To date, researchers haven’t conducted clinical trials with the kind of scale that would demonstrate the benefits of cannabis as a whole, in a way that would clearly outweigh its risks to patients.

Yes, I’m sure you could find 100,000 people to smoke weed with you in a big park or whatever, but I promise that won’t help. Don’t you dare start the campaign on social media. Stop it now. 

Canada, the U.K. and several other European countries have approved nabiximols, which is a mouth spray containing THC and CBD. It’s used to treat muscle control problems caused by MS, but it isn’t FDA-approved.

Are there any FDA-approved cannabis products? 

Actually, yes. 

There are now two FDA-approved drugs, dronabinol and nabilone, which contain THC. 

They treat nausea as a symptom of chemotherapy and increase appetite in patients who experience extreme weight loss caused by AIDS. 

Is there any research that has identified something medically unsafe about cannabis? 

You probably shouldn’t use cannabis while pregnant. We don’t know if it’s safe yet. 

While some women use cannabis as a means to treat severe nausea during pregnancy, there’s no research that shows that it’s safe to do so, and doctors generally don’t recommend it. 

Some animal studies have shown that moderate amounts of THC given to pregnant or nursing women could have long-lasting effects on the child, including issues which may affect social interactions and learning.