Updated on January 5, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
A new report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date look on the health benefits of marijuana. The committee behind this report considered more than 10,000 scientific abstracts published since 1999 that examined the health impacts of marijuana and marijuana-derived products containing chemical compounds known as cannabinoids.
The committee studied these abstracts to unearth the myriad effects of cannabinoids, including therapeutic effects along with pertinent risks to mental health, various diseases and disorders, certain cancers, injuries and death. The committee derived nearly 100 conclusions from the study and proposed several ways to improve and expand the quality of cannabis research.
Nine Key Conclusions Regarding the Health Benefits of Cannabinoids
The health benefits — as well as concerns — of cannabinoids are numerous, including these common conditions:
Effective Treatment for Chronic Pain – The committee found there is conclusive evidence that the active chemicals in cannabis, known as cannabinoids, are an effective treatment for chronic pain. In fact, this is the most common reason people are prescribed medical marijuana. Millions of people use cannabis for relief from all types of chronic pain. The report confirms the highly lauded anecdotal evidence that cannabis use provides significant relief from pain symptoms.
Calms Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms – The committee also concluded that short-term use of oral cannabinoid medications provides relief from the commonly reported symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Specifically, certain forms of oral cannabinoids help prevent and treat vomiting and nausea related to chemotherapy treatments.
More Data Needed on Immune System Benefits – The committee found that there is insufficient data to draw any broad conclusions regarding the effect of cannabinoid-based products or cannabis on the human immune system. Despite limited evidence, current findings indicate that regular exposure to marijuana smoke may yield anti-inflammatory effects.
Effects on Cancer Inconclusive – There has been a lot of misinformation regarding the effect of regular marijuana use on cancer. Many have linked regular cannabis use to certain forms of cancer. However, the committee in its study found evidence that cannabis use is not related to an increased risk of various head, neck or lung cancers.
The committee also found limited evidence to suggest an association between frequent marijuana use and higher rates of a particular type of testicular cancer. The report indicates there is no conclusive evidence in this area and more research is needed.
Mental Health Effects – The committee’s findings suggest that frequent cannabis use may increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other social anxiety disorders. There is substantial evidence to show that cannabis can be harmful for people who are at risk of schizophrenia in the first place. The committee also found moderate evidence that frequent use of cannabis could increase the risk of depression and social anxiety disorder.
Respiratory Effects – The committee found that smoking cannabis on a regular basis may result in more frequent bronchitis episodes and it may worsen respiratory symptoms such as phlegm production and chronic cough. However, these symptoms are likely to reduce once the users stops smoking marijuana. Overall, the committee found limited evidence to conclude the effect of cannabis use on various respiratory factors including asthma, chronic disruptive pulmonary disease and lung function.
Effect on Heart Attack and Stroke – The report suggests that more research needs to be done to determine whether marijuana use can lead to heart attack and stroke. The committee also didn’t find any evidence suggesting that marijuana use can reduce the risk of stroke.
Effect on Learning Ability – The researchers behind this study found limited evidence proving that regular marijuana use may impair cognitive learning or attention and memory functions. Also, there is insubstantial data linking cannabis use with impairment in academic achievement or educational progress.
Exposure to Pregnant Women and Infants – The study reports on a significant amount of evidence suggesting a link between prenatal cannabis exposure and lower birth weight. There was some data indicating the use of cannabis may lead to an increase in pregnancy complications. However, there was no clear relationship between marijuana use when it comes to other childhood and pregnancy outcomes.
While the committee derived more than 100 conclusions from studying published research on the use of cannabis, it concluded that much more research is needed. Without adequate research, it can be challenging for scientists to guide legislators when it comes to crafting policies regarding the use of cannabis.
Researchers often find it difficult or impossible to access the exact strains of marijuana that are commonly used due to various regulatory barriers, the most limiting of which is the DEA’s classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. It doesn’t appear the federal government plans to lower marijuana’s classification any time soon.
More than 20 percent of the population has legal access to cannabis for recreational purposes as many states in the U.S. have legalized marijuana in recent years. However, it’s still illegal in some states and at the federal level. While the report reveals a lot about the effects of marijuana on health, more research still needs to be done in this area. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are many health benefits of marijuana, but there is limited scientific data to support these conclusions.
What Does This Mean for Patients Who Rely on Medical Marijuana?
If you rely on medical marijuana and you and your physician are seeing positive benefits, nothing needs to change because of this study. If you live in a state that regulates medical cannabis but you don’t have a prescription or you need a dispensary, browse through our directory to find a local doctor who can evaluate your condition and help you get the medicine you need.
Every physician in our directory has been thoroughly vetted to ensure legal compliance and ethical practices per each state’s current laws. If medical marijuana is not legal in your state, follow our site to stay up-to-date on pending medical marijuana legislation.