Where Does the Science of Medical Cannabis Stand Today?



When it comes to medical cannabis, we know more today than a decade ago, but there is still much to learn about the science of why and how cannabis works in the body.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a nearly 400 page report this week, which is the result of work of a committee of experts scoured cannabis studies that have been published since 1999. This is one of the most comprehensive federal reviews of medical cannabis in recent decades; in 1999, the Institute of Medicine released a similar review called Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base.

The report provided nearly 100 conclusions about medical cannabis. Among them: screenshot-2017-01-12-at-6-15-41-pm

  • Medical cannabis very likely mitigates chronic pain. A reminder: chronic pain is by far the most-cited condition for which doctors recommend medical cannabis.
  • In addition, the report noted that there is strong evidence that “oral cannabinoids are effective antiemetics” for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
  • There is also evidence that “short-term use of oral cannabinoids improves” spacticity in patients with multiple sclerosis.

There report outlined a number of concerns about cannabis, too.


  • The report listed some evidence that those who consume cannabis regularly could develop a dependence or addiction to another substance, like alcohol or other drugs. In addition, those that consume cannabis more frequently are more likely to develop a dependency on cannabis.
  • While cannabis use wasn’t linked to workplace accidents, there is indication that consuming cannabis right before driving does increase risk of a vehicle accident.
  • There is evidence that shows that people who smoke cannabis regularly have respiratory problems, including bronchitis, more often.
  • The regular use of cannabis is linked to the development of schizophrenia.
  • In states where cannabis is legal, there is increased risk that children face “unintentional cannabis overdose injuries.”
  • There is some evidence that smoking cannabis while pregnant could lead to a lower birth weight for the baby.

The report also called for more research on cannabis, the requests for which have been growing increasingly louder in recent years.  The report cited the lack of research on cannabis as a “public health risk.” While over half of the country has forged ahead of federal law and passed a medical cannabis law, cannabis remains in a limbo of sorts: cannabis is still a Schedule I federally prohibited substance, and as such, is more difficult for scientists to study because of the extra restrictions.

There are signs that federal officials recognize this chicken and egg problem. In a March 2016 interview, Nora Volkow, the director of the National Office on Drug Control Policy, voiced support for rescheduling cannabis. “I’m very much for facilitating research on cannabis and changing some of this scheduling of these substances,” she said.


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