According to the National Institutes of Health, people have used marijuana, or cannabis, to treat their ailments for at least 3,000 years. However, the Food and Drug Administration has not deemed marijuana safe or effective in the treatment of any medical condition, although cannabidiol, a substance that is present in marijuana, received approval in June 2018 as a treatment for some types of epilepsy.
A man holding a marijuana leaf
Marijuana is being increasingly legalized in the U.S., but is it safe?
This tension, between a widespread belief, that marijuana is an effective treatment for a wide assortment of ailments and a lack of scientific knowledge on its effects, has been somewhat exacerbated in recent times by a drive toward legalization.
Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have now made marijuana available for medical — and, in some states, recreational — purposes.
A recent study published in the journal Addiction also found that the use of marijuana is increasing sharply across the United States, although this rise may not be linked to the legalization of marijuana in participating states. Nevertheless, this rise in use is prompting major public health concerns.
In this article, we look at the scientific evidence weighing the medical benefits of marijuana against its associated health risks in an attempt to answer this simple question: is marijuana good or bad?
What are the medical benefits of marijuana?
Over the years, research has yielded results to suggest that marijuana may be of benefit in the treatment of some conditions. These are listed below.
Last year, a large review from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine assessed more than 10,000 scientific studies on the medical benefits and adverse effects of marijuana.
One area that the report looked closely at was the use of medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. Chronic pain is a leading cause of disability, affecting more than 25 million adults in the U.S.
The review found that marijuana, or products containing cannabinoids — which are the active ingredients in marijuana, or other compounds that act on the same receptors in the brain as marijuana — are effective at relieving chronic pain.
Alcoholism and drug addiction
Another comprehensive review of the evidence, published last year in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, revealed that using marijuana may help people with alcohol or opioid dependencies to fight their addictions.
But this finding may be contentious; the National Academies of Sciences review suggests that marijuana use actually drives increased risk for abusing, and becoming dependent on, other substances.
Also, the more that someone uses marijuana, the more likely they are to develop a problem with using marijuana. Individuals who began using the drug at a young age are also known to be at increased risk of developing a problem with marijuana use.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety
The review published in Clinical Psychology Review assessed all published scientific literature that investigated the use of marijuana to treat symptoms of mental illness.
A man feeling depressed
Evidence to date suggests that marijuana could help to treat some mental health conditions.
Its authors found some evidence supporting the use of marijuana to relieve depression and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
The review indicates that there is some evidence to suggest that marijuana might alleviate symptoms of social anxiety, but again, this is contradicted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine review, which instead found that regular users of marijuana may actually be at increased risk of social anxiety.
There is evidence that demonstrates both the harms and health benefits of marijuana. Yet despite the emergence over the past couple of years of very comprehensive, up-to-date reviews of the scientific studies evaluating the benefits and harms of the drug, it’s clear that more research is needed to fully determine the public health implications of rising marijuana use.
More research is needed to confirm the harms and benefits of marijuana use.
Many scientists and health bodies — including the American Cancer Society (ACS) — support the need for further scientific research on the use of marijuana and cannabinoids to treat medical conditions.
However, there is an obstacle to this: marijuana is classed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which deters the study of marijuana and cannabinoids through its imposition of strict conditions on the researchers working in this area.
If you happen to live in a state where medical use of marijuana is legal, you and your doctor will need to carefully consider these factors and how they relate to your illness and health history before using this drug.
For instance, while there is some evidence to support the use for marijuana for pain relief, you should certainly avoid marijuana if you have a history of mental health problems.
Remember to always speak to your doctor before taking a new medicine.