By Dr. Neil Sweigart
Despite comprehensive, up-to-date reviews of scientific studies evaluating the benefits and harms of marijuana, it’s clear more research is needed to determine the public health implications of its rising use.
An Aug. 12 article by Jerry Nadler, representative from New York’s 10th Congressional District, discusses his recently introduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana.
Here’s what it does:
- Provides much-needed relief to the communities that have been ravaged by the oppressive enforcement of marijuana prohibition.
- Removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, thereby enabling states to set their own policies allowing for more scientific and medical research.
- Gives veterans more access to medical marijuana by no longer having Veterans Administration doctors risk federal prosecution for filling out state-legal medical recommendations.
He goes on to say, “Marijuana is a public health and personal freedom issue, not a criminal one. We can no longer afford the moral or financial costs of the War on Drugs.”
What are the facts?
So what are the facts about medical and recreational marijuana?
A new study from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the University of Miami found that the majority of people smoke weed for a very boring reason: they just want to get some sleep. Published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, the study surveyed 1,000 marijuana customers. 65 percent reported buying cannabis as a method of pain relief, while 74 percent said they bought it as a sleep aid. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents taking it for pain relief said they found cannabis “very helpful,” with 88 percent of those previously taking opioids reporting they had reduced or stopped taking those medications; while 84 percent said they found it helpful for getting some sleep.
A 2014 JAMA paper linking cannabis legalization to a decrease in opioid overdose deaths has made similar claims (though it’s worth noting that a 2019 study has since called the findings of the JAMA study into question.)
Is marijuana use associated with death?
How many people die from a marijuana-related cause? The answer is: “We don’t know.”
While marijuana causes no deaths from an overdose, it has been linked to fatalities. As weed causes intoxication, there is no question that it increases the risk of a traffic accident. However, the level at which it does is open to debate because of the number of drivers in accidents found with marijuana AND alcohol or another intoxicating substance in their system.
Several studies of large populations show no increased risk of death among marijuana users over a 10- to 15-year period.
What are the medical benefits?
What are the medical benefits of marijuana? Research has yielded results to suggest that marijuana may be of benefit in the treatment of nausea, pain, inflammation, glaucoma, insomnia and epilepsy.
Chronic pain: Last year, a 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. The review found that marijuana, or products containing cannabinoids, are effective at relieving chronic pain.
Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder: A review published in Clinical Psychology Review suggests that marijuana could help to treat some mental health conditions. That being said, they caution that marijuana is not an appropriate treatment for other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and psychosis.
Cancer: Evidence suggests that oral cannabinoids are effective against nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, and some small studies have found that smoked marijuana may also help to alleviate these symptoms.
Epilepsy: In June 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a medication containing cannabidiol to treat two rare, severe and specific types of epilepsy — CBD is one of many substances that occurs in cannabis. Studies have shown a 50 percent reduction in certain types of epileptic seizures.
The risks are real
While there are many potential benefits to marijuana, we need to be aware of potential risks. The more that someone uses marijuana, the more likely they are to develop a problem. Individuals who began using the drug at a young age are also known to be at increased risk of developing problems. There is unequivocal evidence that habitual or regular marijuana smoking is not harmless.
At this point I think it’s safe to say there is no reason to not legalize medical marijuana. I am encouraged by the legalization of CBD oil, which while more research is needed, appears to be beneficial to many with few side effects. Whichever side of the debate you are on, more research and public education will be vital going forward.
Dr. Neil Sweigart is a native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Logan College of Chiropractic. He retired from his Vincennes practice and has an interest in natural methods.