What Are The benefits & Harm of Cannabis?

October 23, 2017




This post is springing up from a discussion that took place on the subject of how beneficial or harmful is Cannabis? The popularity of marijuana continues to rise, and what makes this interesting is that currently, marijuana is a schedule 1 substance, which effectively limits how in depth it can be researched in the United States.
To thicken the plot; this conversation came up as a young adult within the group that was discussing, was caught by his parent. The topic of how cannabis effects a developing teens brain was also part of the conversation.

A question that was posed was as follows..."What are the positives to letting a healthy young adult smoke pot?" 

This is a great and valid question to ask if you're a concerned parent. Thinking of all the information I've come across on this topic throughout my time being a health optimizing expert. Trying to give a simple answer just isn't possible. It is a complex topic with many variables that will inevitably end up as a long winded response.   What is a healthy person and what are we going to use as a control? Someone living a standard American life on a standard American diet?

Let's dive into the little bit of the research that has come in the recent past as states have begun to legalize and therefore open the door to more honest and open research.

Marijuana has been with us in some way or another since the dawn of humanity. After all this time, there is still a lot of public debate about what, exactly, pot’s risks and benefits are.
A meta-analysis from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine attempts to fill the gap in our limited knowledge to this point. By streamlining more than 10,000 studies published since 1999, the review, conducted by more than a dozen research teams, provides the clearest look at the scientific evidence on marijuana yet.
The research finds both some strong benefits and major downsides to cannabis. It seems to be promising for chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, and cancer patients. But it also seems to pose a significant risk for respiratory problems if smoked, schizophrenia and psychosis, car crashes, lagging social achievement in life, and perhaps pregnancy-related problems if abused

The findings are for marijuana or cannabinoids, chemical compounds commonly found in pot. It’s possible that, down the line, some of the benefits, in particular, will be split from the marijuana leaf itself — although many experts believe that there’s an “entourage effect” with marijuana in which all of its cannabinoids and chemicals, which number in the hundreds, work synergistically to make its effects as potent as possible.
The report is, by its own admission, only the best guess for a lot of its findings, because much of the research out there just isn’t very good. The report pins the lack of good research largely on government policies — particularly regulatory barriers linked to marijuana’s federal classification as a highly restricted Schedule 1 substance — that make it hard to conduct good research on the drug. The National Academies ultimately calls for these barriers to be removed so that more research can be funded to get a better idea of what this plant is capable of, especially as more states legalize it for both medical and recreational uses.
In any case, this report is the best look at marijuana yet. It is nearly 400 pages. This article will be a summary of this and many other resources that I've come across in my curiosity to optimize health. 

What are marijuana’s benefits?  

Since the mid-1990s, 28 states have legalized marijuana for medical uses. But in all that time, the benefits of pot have remained "hazy." Despite some research pointing that it can be good for general to intense pain and muscle stiffness, many of the claims about what pot can do for other ailments — such as epilepsy and irritable bowel syndrome — are based on anecdotal evidence and to continue to be researched.

The report can’t fully validate or invalidate all of the claims about marijuana’s claimed benefits, given that there's still not enough research on any of these questions, and much of the studies that are out there are lacking as it's really the wild west in our understanding of it. As research continues to dig there are some solid preliminary findings.
The review confirms what previous studies have found: There is “conclusive evidence” that marijuana is good for treating chronic pain. This is one of the most common reasons cited for marijuana’s medical & recreational use — With my experience working with patients at a pain clinic, I've noticed anecdotally that the ones that are more open to cannabis, and of course are committed to their exercise rehab seem to heal much faster than those that report not to consume cannabis, but are equally committed.
The report also found “conclusive evidence” that marijuana is effective for treating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Coupled with the findings on pain, this suggests that marijuana really is a potent treatment for cancer patients in particular, who can suffer from debilitating pain and severe nausea as a result of their illness. It's also pointing towards being beneficial towards everyday pain that many suffer from such as back pain and discomfort from menstrual pain in women.

The report also found positive correlations for patients with multiple sclerosis(which i've witnessed first hand), sleep disturbances, fibromyalgia, Tourette Syndrome, anxiety, and PTSD. There was even “limited evidence” of a correlation between marijuana and better outcomes after a traumatic brain injury.

The report also disproved — or at least cast a lot of doubt — on some of the claimed benefits of pot. It found “limited evidence” that marijuana is ineffective for treating symptoms associated with dementia and glaucoma.
It found “no or insufficient evidence” for marijuana as a treatment for cancer-associated anorexia, irritable bowel syndrome, epilepsy, spasticity in patients with paralysis due to spinal cord injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, drug addiction, and schizophrenia. This doesn’t mean that marijuana can’t treat any of these, just that we need to come to a clearer understanding of the mechanisms behind how these diseases and cannabis interact — for example, some patients who are prescribed for these ailments, will swear that marijuana helped treat their situation — There’s just not enough evidence so far to evaluate the claims. This means that we need to keep looking, as there is still much to learn.

What are marijuana’s harms?

Marijuana is often described as one of the safest drugs out there, in part because it’s never been definitively linked to an overdose death and it’s broadly safer than other drugs like alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals(which let's remind ourselves are legal), cocaine, and heroin. While the National Academies’ report doesn’t find evidence of a marijuana overdose death, it does add a few wrinkles to the narrative of marijuana as a safe drug.
For one, the report finds “substantial evidence” of marijuana’s negative effects for a few conditions. For long-term abusers of cannabis, there’s a risk of worsening respiratory symptoms and more frequent chronic bronchitis episodes. For pregnant women who smoke pot, there’s a risk of lower birth weight for the baby(which is now being looked into it is a bad thing in and of itself). For marijuana users with genetic predispositions, there’s a greater risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses, especially if paired with the standard American diet. And there’s a link between marijuana/alcohol use and increased risk of car crashes.

There was some good news: The report found “moderate evidence” of no link between marijuana smoking and lung cancer or marijuana use and head and neck cancers, which are commonly linked to tobacco. There was also “moderate evidence” of better cognitive performance among individuals with psychotic disorders and a history of marijuana use.
The report, however, couldn’t find sufficient evidence to pot’s links to other problems such as other types of cancer, an increased chronic risk of heart attack, asthma, PTSD and later outcomes for infants born to mothers that used marijuana during pregnancy.

One caveat to much of the research: correlation is not always causation. For example, in the case of the “gateway” effect, other researchers argue that the correlation between pot and harder drug use may just indicate that people prone to all sorts of drug use only start with marijuana because it’s the cheapest and most accessible of the illicit drugs. If cocaine or heroin were cheaper and more accessible, there’s a good chance people would start with those drugs first. Let's not forget alcohol is a drug too, that is an open gateway as well.

As for the teenage brain, there are very few studies out there on recreational use that point in a specific direction. Being that a teens brain is developing rapidly there I'm sure effects to be discovered. 
There is analysis on teens that abuse marijuana that point in a negative direction, but that is also the same for adults that abuse.
Does casual marijuana use benefit or harm a teenage brain? The consensus is that there's not enough concrete evidence to point in any direction. If optimal teenage health is the goal there is much more low hanging fruit to go after before cannabis use. The Standard American Diet is overflowing in high sugar, contaminated milk, chemically riddled food, pointing out what the benefits or harmful effects on the teenage brain may be, is a question that way off the mark. By the time cannabis has been exposed to the teenage brain, so much damage in their development has already been done. Thank goodness the brain is plastic and can adapt to better inputs. My life is a prime example of this. 


The bottom line is that marijuana/cannabis can pose benefit and harm, just like most everything else that we come into contact with. At the risk of an oversimplified example, water is one of the best things we can consume, but if we overdose on it we can thin our blood to the point of death, or drown. 
Dose, and mindset matter. I for one am looking forward to learning about all the benefits and harm that cannabis and many other interesting substances have in store for us to unlock and learn from.

Here's to the tough conversations that come up as parents learning to grow with growing children, and to optimizing every part of that growth.



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