Why we need more scientific evidence on the benefits of cannabis products

By Alma Fabiani

Updated May 19, 2020 at 03:29 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

On May 31, the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a public hearing to obtain scientific data and information about the safety, manufacturing, product quality, marketing, labelling, and sale of products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived products. At this point, there’s almost no need to ask why. In the U.S., as well as in the U.K. and many other countries, cannabis-related products have flooded the market, making health claims about pain relief, immune function, anxiety, and depression. But it turns out there is little known about how effective these are.

My aim here is not to demonise cannabis Nixon-style but to underline the uncertainty that surrounds it. Understandably, it is difficult to push people to study a substance that until very recently has been almost globally illegal. Even the few studies we’ve had on the topic are outdated, with all the recent developments made in plant-breeding and the changes made in THC concentrations (from the low single digits to more than twenty percent).

From my personal experience, cannabis products seem to work for pain relief and treating anxiety. But I’m not a doctor, and everyone reacts differently to different things. Although it was very necessary, the FDA’s public hearing delivered close to no results and one clear answer: we don’t have enough scientific research to prove the medical benefits of cannabis, and we need to get on it ASAP. What do we have? Testimonies from recreational smokers, cancer patients and new products showing up everywhere—new types of weed, CBD oils, vapes, edibles, creams and more.

When discussing cannabis on a political level, the argument of it being a ‘gateway’ drug is always raised by more conservative voices. And in response to this, there are often two rigid answers: the first one would be that weed has a negative neurological effect on us and pushes people to behave in certain ways, leading them to more serious addictions. The second answer is that, on the contrary, marijuana offers people a safer alternative to other ‘stronger’ drugs, keeping them away from opioids and stimulants. And here again, both answers sound too short-sighted, and I can’t help but feel like we’re missing years of research on a variety of participants to really assert anything.

During the FDA’s hearing, acting commissioner and director of the National Cancer Institute Dr. Ned Sharpless said, “When hemp was removed as a controlled substance, this lack of research, and therefore evidence, to support CBD’s broader use in FDA-regulated products, including in foods and dietary supplements, has resulted in unique complexities for its regulation, including many unanswered questions related to its safety”. And this raises another issue—how exactly are we going to regulate something that has recently become legal in some countries when we don’t even know its long-term effects?

For now, all these questions are left with no answers. We’re only a bit over a decade into the widespread recreational use of marijuana, meaning the data we actually have are pretty messy and vague. The same issue will probably show up in a few years, this time concerning e-cigarettes and vapes. The only certainty I have to offer is that, yes, we need more scientific research on cannabis-derived products. Until then, nothing can be said for sure, not that it matters most of the time. What’s important to remember is how many deaths marijuana has caused: zero, nada, unlike many other drugs, and let’s be honest here, who doesn’t like to spark up after a long day? Junk food clogs your arteries and yet you’ll see me eating chicken nuggets like they’re going out of fashion. I’ll leave you with my hypocritical advice: consume everything in moderation—chicken nuggets and weed included.

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