Medical Marijuana: The Benefits and Risks Associated with Cannabis Use
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
Marijuana has been used for medical and cultural purposes all throughout history. It was first made illegal in some states here in the US in the 1930s, and in the 1960's it was banned outright. Some kingdoms banned it as early as the 1700s, but its ban was not widespread until the past 100 years.
The recent widespread banning of cannabis is a shame, as it has been used for a variety of cultural, recreational, and even therapeutic uses for the past millennia. This included relaxation, ceremonies, and even for the creation of Hemp fabrics and paper.
But even after the long use of this herb for so many uses, there is still a ton of misinformation out there. Even scientific studies surrounding cannabis have been limited by this legal status, so there is not a ton of good studies to focus on. That said, there is still enough information to see the known effects of short and even long-term use of marijuana.
Marijuana in Medicine Through the Ages
Marijuana first became used for medical reasons back in ancient China, at about 100 AD. Back then, it was considered to be a good herb to use when treating people in a medical setting. It was even used for constipation and even hair loss, so not too different than a lot of the herbal remedies that were used back in the day.remedies
India also has close ties with this herb, from edibles to using the flower in many cultural ways. This includes creating a cultural drink known as bhang, which is made using ground cannabis. It is most notably used to reduce symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and pain.
It has been heavily stigmatized over the past few centuries all over the world, but in the US it is now being approved for specific medical uses. It is still stigmatized, and there are many legal issues that need to be addressed.
The Medical Science of Cannabis
Any benefits, or detriments, that Marijuana might have comes from compounds known as Endocannabinoids, which are produced naturally within your body, and bind to CBD or THC.
THC is the compound that is responsible for the "high" feeling, while CBD is thought to be what is behind some of the potential benefits. The most common claims are that it helps with, or hinders, learning, immunity, motor function, and memory, among others. This is far faster if you smoke it (about 30 minutes) as opposed to eating them as edibles (2-3 hours.)
When it comes to the medical evidence for the benefits of marijuana, the science seems to vary. The strongest evidence seems to benefit 2 symptoms: pain and nausea. For instance, a 2017 systematic review of multiple randomized controlled trials, or RCTs, looked at the evidence of whether marijuana can help with pain. There did seem to be a link between the consumption of marijuana and a specific type of chronic pain called neuropathic pain. That being said, this study also mentioned that there were a lot of limitations. For instance, most of the RCTs found no link when it came to pain.
But what about nausea and vomiting? There does seem to be a lot of evidence to show that cannabis can help with nausea and vomiting which occur as a result of chemotherapy.
One systematic review of multiple systematic reviews in 2018 found just this. It stated in its conclusion that:
"There is reasonable evidence that cannabinoids improve nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy. They might improve spasticity (primarily in multiple sclerosis). There is some uncertainty about whether cannabinoids improve pain, but if they do, it is neuropathic pain and the benefit is likely small."
Even then, the study claims to be wary due to a lot of bias present on both sides of the spectrum.
These studies also mention that there are common adverse effects of consuming marijuana. So the benefits that come with it would have to outweigh the negative effects. But what are the negative effects?
The Risks of Marijuana
Marijuana may have some benefits, but that does not come without some risks.
Common short-term side effects of smoking are impaired short-term memory, compromised judgment, bronchitis, and paranoia. These do not stay long, and often go away after a few hours to a few days. But there are long-term effects to consider as well.
For instance, recently, a study has shown that there is a small but significant higher risk of people aged 18-44 to get a stroke. Granted, this was very small, and only raised the absolute risk of stroke by 0.5% in this age group.
Another risk is impaired driving. Studies have shown that driving while high increased the risk of a motor vehicle accident by 20-30%.
Pregnant women who consumed marijuana were more likely to give birth to a baby of lower birth weight. Many premature babies needed to go to the neonatal intensive care unit as a result.
Cancer? Heart disease? There does not seem to be any evidence that smoking pot, or consuming cannabis in any way, is associated with an increased risk for any kind of cancer or heart disease.
And when it comes to mental health, there does not seem to be much evidence linking smoking pot to increased risk of mental health issues. Some studies do show that heavy pot smokers are more likely to have schizophrenia, but it is unsure whether marijuana causes schizophrenia, or that people with schizophrenia already seek out marijuana.
Some smaller observational studies have shown that edibles, which are often more potent, have a higher risk of negative side effects, but more research needs to be done on this. But it does make sense from a medical standpoint that a higher dose of something increases the likelihood of negative side effects, while not necessarily increasing the benefits.
As more states seek to legalize marijuana, the risks and benefits seem to go from medical professional hands to the hands of the general public. So one has to make an informed decision on whether the risks of pot are worth the benefits.
Watch this video below from Healthcare Triage to learn more evidence about the pros and cons of marijuana.