As it becomes more accepted and legalized throughout America, it’s important to have a realistic view of the health effects of marijuana. Due to the plant’s status as a Schedule I substance, in-depth research about the short- and long-term effects of marijuana is still in its infancy. Read to find out what we know (and what we don’t) about marijuana today.
If you told someone in the 1990s that by the year 2017, marijuana would be recreationally legal in eight states (and medically legal in another two dozen), they probably wouldn’t believe you. Yet, that is the new reality of marijuana’s status in America. Little by little, social opinion of the drug has softened from something extremely taboo to a substance basically considered on par with alcohol in terms of acceptability.
Where once there was no other option for marijuana users besides smoking the flower itself, today users are presented with a virtual cornucopia of options. While smoking is still popular, more and more people are turning to brand new products such as portable vaporizers, cannabis oils and extracts, and edibles. There’s more ways than ever to feel the effects of marijuana, but we still know preciously little about what long-term use of the drug does to a person’s physiology.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine teamed up to sift through over ten thousand studies about marijuana and its potential effects. The resulting conclusive evidence about its impact on health? Still almost nothing. How could this be? After all, ten thousand studies seems like a massive amount of research and publication. Plus, we know that there is public interest in the topic — NPR gives a figure stating that 22 million adults in the United States used marijuana last month.
The reason why the research on marijuana is so incomplete is simple: due to its status as a Schedule I drug by the DEA (“no currently acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse”), there are major restrictions in place that prevent scientists and researchers from being able to investigate as much as they would for a non-scheduled (or lower scheduled) substance. There has been an ongoing struggle between the medical/scientific community and the DEA to get marijuana rescheduled to facilitate better research; but so far, the DEA and various presidential administrations have remained firm in their decision to keep the scheduling of marijuana as it is.
Despite the challenge of conducting thorough research on a substance that is still federally illegal, there have been many attempts to garner knowledge about marijuana’s health effects.
Benefits: While anecdotal evidence about marijuana’s pain-relieving effects abound, the science so far only truly shows that effect for multiple sclerosis patients in terms of the abatement of their muscle spasms. The studies also show a strong correlation between chronic pain patients and relief via marijuana use, but it’s harder to draw distinct, evidence-based conclusions for that claim. Perhaps the most conclusive positive medical benefit we know of from marijuana is its anti-nausea effect in chemotherapy patients. The evidence for this benefit seems to be fairly iron-clad.
Potential Risks: As mentioned before, it’s extremely difficult to track the long-term effects of a drug that is federally illegal. However, scientists have begun to piece together some evidence regarding potential risks. Some of those risks include pregnancy complications in terms of birth weight, potential danger for people with a pre-existing heart condition, respiratory problems, and mental health issues. Again, there is no conclusive link to any of those conditions — there are merely correlations and potential connections.
As with any other substance, it’s up to you to make a responsible, informed decision based on your overall health and what your doctor thinks you can safely consume. Substances like alcohol can be fine in moderation as long as you have no contraindications based on existing health conditions. We know this because alcohol has been studied in-depth for decades; however, marijuana does not have the benefit of such accumulated knowledge.