A new comprehensive analysis of the known health risks and benefits of marijuana concluded that it can be effectively used to treat chronic pain in some patients.

Image credits Chuck Herrera / Pixabay.

Released Thursday by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, the report analyzed over 10,000 scientific papers to come up with almost 100 conclusions regarding the possible uses and risks of marijuana. They largely regard unanswered questions and areas of insufficient research of the plant’s health benefits and potentially negative effects. But probably most important conclusion reached by the paper is that marijuana does have legitimate medical uses — a conclusion that calls into question the DEA’s decision to keep marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, a substance of no medical use.

Up in smoke

Marijuana is a controversial topic. But, no matter what your personal opinion on the drug and on its use may be, there is one fact that I think we should all agree on: with so much literature pointing at possible health benefits, we should let our scientists test it out. The problem is that they can’t. Schedule I listing throws huge hurdles in the path of researchers that want to research marijuana or its components.

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Right now, marijuana regulation is a bit foggy. Although banned at a federal level, several states have passed or enacted laws that allow for medical and recreational use. Despite this scientists are still struggling to get their hands on materials they can actually work with.

“It is often difficult for researchers to gain access to the quantity, quality, and type of cannabis product necessary to address specific research questions on the health effects of cannabis use,” concluded the paper, authored by a panel of experts led by Harvard pediatrician and public health researcher Marie McCormick.

The authors didn’t comment on the DEA’s decision to keep marijuana on the Schedule I list, saying that the issue fell outside the scope of a scientific review and into the political. This federal-level ban does raise some issues for future research: President Obama’s administration largely left the issue of legalization in each state’s hands, but it’s unclear if President-elect Trump will continue this lenient approach or enforce the federal law.

Trump’s nominee attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions, has previously been critical of the former’s administration stance on the issue. During his confirmation hearings on Tuesday however, he said:

“I won’t commit to never enforcing federal law […] I think some of [the Obama-administration’s measures] are truly valuable in evaluating cases”

“Using good judgment about how to handle these cases will be a responsibility of mine. I know it won’t be an easy decision, but I will try to do my duty in a fair and just way.”

Here are some of the other findings of the report

  1. Cannabis and cannabinoids are effective in treating chronic pain, particularly related to multiple sclerosis. The substances also show effectiveness in mitigating chemotherapy-related symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting.
  2. The paper found no links between these substances and smoking-induced cancers, such as lung or neck cancer. However, smoking may increase respiratory problems, like chronic phlegm, if it’s done on a regular basis.
  3. Smoking marijuana while pregnant seems to result in lower birth weights, but it’s unclear if there are any long-term effects for the children. However, states in which cannabis use is legal do show a small increase in child accidental poisoning cases.
  4. There is some evidence that smoking marijuana could trigger a heart attack. However, there’s not enough research done on the issue to offer a definite answer.
  5. There is some evidence that marijuana could have anti-inflammatory effects. However, there’s not enough research into how cannabis and cannabinoids interact with the immune system or how it affects those with compromised immune systems.
  6. Several papers point out that marijuana use could increase the risk of developing mental health issues such as schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression.
  7. Some evidence points to the fact that using marijuana may increase your chance of using other drugs — especially tobacco. The authors report a clear link between people who use cannabis and those who are prone do developing substance dependence.
  8. Cannabis use has an immediate effect on mental processes by impairing learning, memory, and attention. Some evidence suggests that these effects could persist in people after they’ve stopped smoking and that it could negatively impact education and employment for those who start off young

The authors hope their conclusions will help steer discussions, policies, and decisions on the issue of legalization that we’re bound to see in the coming years.

The full report “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research (2017)” is available here.