It’s been almost five years since Colorado voted to legalize cannabis. In that time, eight states (plus the District of Columbia) have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 29 states have legalized access to medical marijuana. In fact, when you throw in CBD (the non-psychoactive compound in cannabis), only six states have not legalized cannabis in any form.
Through the first 10 months of 2016, marijuana businesses in Colorado reported $1.1 billion in sales, up from $996 million in 2015.
The reality is this: A lot of people are using marijuana across the country, and, considering the 2016 election cycle, and barring overreach from the Trump administration, the industry and the number of people across every demographic who use marijuana will only increase. Some use it legally, some not; some under the guidance of medical professionals, some not. Some are using it recreationally, some strictly medicinally, some both. One thing is almost certain: It’s not going anywhere.
There’s (at least) one problem with all this: The short- and long-term health effects of marijuana use are massively under-studied. Credible and conclusive research when it comes to many issues regarding marijuana use – both how it can help and hurt us – simply does not exist, and there are barriers in the way of that research.
The reality is that many desperately want or need this information: Doctors treating patients who use marijuana, users who self-diagnose, and the maddening prohibition proponents clinging to outdated and horribly inaccurate “Reefer-Madness”-type information, some of whom make and shape drug laws.
While reputable and credible marijuana research has been underway for decades, it’s been insufficient, especially when tens of millions of Americans use marijuana regularly (a 2015 study showed that 22.2 million Americans smoked marijuana in the previous month, and a 2016 Gallup poll showed one in eight U.S. adults said they smoke marijuana).
Thankfully, medical and academic communities are taking note. In January, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a 337-page report – analyzing more than 10,000 studies – to determine conclusive health effects of cannabis and cannabinoids and examine barriers to further research.
The report is absolutely fascinating and a great tool in understanding the effects of marijuana use. Some highlights: There is conclusive or substantial evidence that marijuana is effective for the treatment of chronic pain in adults and moderate evidence for improving short-term sleep outcomes. It also shows no or insufficient evidence that smoking marijuana leads to cancers commonly linked to cigarette smoking (lung, head, neck), or that cannabis use leads to occupational accidents, or death because of overdose. There is, however, substantial evidence linking cannabis use and motor vehicle crashes.
Many of the health benefits of cannabis are real, and there are many side effects to its use. In other cases, the benefits and detriments are unknown or not known well enough.
The National Academies study also identified a number of issues standing in the way of cannabis research: (1) The federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance impedes research; (2) it is difficult to attain necessary quantities of quality cannabis products to use in research; (3) more and diverse networks of funding are needed for research; and (4) more standardization is needed in research methodology in the field.
I have good information from a number of friends who work in the medical field in Durango about people having mysterious symptoms possibly related to marijuana use. For instance, just in the past few months in Durango, younger adults are showing up to the emergency room and doctor’s offices with unexplained daily vomiting, all regular or heavy marijuana users. While marijuana use is suspected as a contributor to the problem, treating such symptoms often comes down to trial and error using diagnostics to rule out what it isn’t, including the recommendation to eliminate marijuana use temporarily. Meanwhile, patients are self-diagnosing with web sources that may or may not be relevant or accurate, and cannot imagine and will not accept that marijuana might be contributing to their problems.
But ultimately, how to treat such symptoms remains mysterious and elusive, mainly because specific research on the diagnoses doesn’t exist. This needs to change.
Despite its legality and ubiquity in our community, marijuana still carries a heavy stigma. Many continue to associate it with hoodlums, slackers, long-hairs, troublemakers, deadbeats, and decades’ old hysteria. Some hope it will simply go away or stay out of sight. Marijuana’s biggest proselytizers rightly tout its miracle health benefits (especially compared with the ravaging and devastating effects of something like opioid use), while failing to acknowledge its potential health detriments, especially in certain vulnerable groups, basing much of their knowledge on unproven methods and anecdotal evidence. What is needed are sensible and open discussions on marijuana use based on science, research, facts, and reason.
Cannabis is helping millions every day while hurting some at the same time. Credible and conclusive scientific evidence will become even more important as this marijuana experiment spreads across the country.