The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) updated its Clinical Applications For Cannabis & Cannabinoids report and the report now highlights 450 peer-reviewed studies that assess the safety and efficacy of the whole cannabis plant as well as individual cannabinoids.
The update arrives four years after the last report and contains nearly 100 new studies. The report covers 23 different patient groups, including autism, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, migraine and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although there are claims that medical cannabis needs to be studied further, recent years have shown an increase in the scientific interest in cannabis. In 2020, researchers published over 3,500 scientific papers on the study of cannabis, and over 2,600 scientific papers have been published this year already. Overall, there are over 37,000 scientific papers published to PubMed.gov, a database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. However, the same website has over 180,000 listed published papers on the topic of opioids.
The published studies show cannabis and cannabinoids are relatively safe and effective therapeutic compounds that are virtually non-toxic to cells or organs. Most importantly, cannabis consumption cannot induce a fatal overdose regardless of quantity or potency of the cannabis that was consumed. A 2008 study published in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Association found cannabis-based drugs were associated with no elevated instances of serious adverse side-effects in over 30 years of investigative use.
Since 1968, U.S. researchers have only been able to use cannabis from one source for cannabis studies: a facility at the University of Mississippi, where the cannabis has been deemed subpar quality and doesn’t properly represent the strength of cannabis commercially available today. In May, the DEA announced plans to register several other cannabis companies to produce cannabis for medical and research purposes.
One cannabis study found among the average adult cannabis user, the health risks associated with cannabis are likely no more dangerous than other indulgences, such as alcohol, nicotine, fast food and acetaminophen. Another study found large doses of cannabis can help improve symptoms from treatment-resistant depression as well as other mental ailments including cancer-related distress and dependence on cigarettes or alcohol.
On the other hand, cannabis should be seen as an entirely harmless substance, as the active constituents in cannabis may produce a variety of effects. Some populations may be vulnerable to increased risks from cannabis use, including adolescents, pregnant or nursing mothers and patients who have a family history of psychiatric illness or who possess a clinical high risk for developing a psychotic disorder. Smoking cannabis may also increase the risk of adverse side effects for people that have a history of heart disease, cardiovascular disorders or stroke.
NORML’s deputy director, Paul Armentano, mentioned that the focus of cannabis research has also changed in recent years, with scientists now exploring the potential role of specific cannabinoids to treat diseases. Armentano points to research investigating how cannabinoids can help moderate conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. A recent study has found cannabinoids may be able to slow down the replication process of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), which is what causes COVID-19.
“Arguably, these recent discoveries represent far broader and more significant applications for cannabinoid therapeutics than many researchers could have imagined some 30 or even 20 years ago,” Armentano said.
NORML notes that its review can be used as a primer for patients and physicians who are considering using or recommending medical cannabis. In some cases, the studies are confirming longtime anecdotal reports from medical cannabis consumers, while others highlight potential new clinical uses for cannabis and cannabinoids, such as using cannabinoids to change the progression of diabetes.