According to the National Institutes of Health, people have used marijuana, or cannabis, to treat their ailments for at least 3,000 years. However, the Food and Drug Administration have not deemed marijuana safe or effective in the treatment of any medical condition.
a man holding a marijuana leaf
Marijuana is being increasingly legalized in the U.S., but is it safe?
This tension, between a widespread belief that marijuana is an effective treatment for a wide assortment of ailments and a lack of scientific knowledge on its effects, has been somewhat exacerbated in recent times by a drive toward legalization.
Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have now made marijuana available for medical — and, in some states, recreational — purposes.
A recent study published in the journal Addiction also found that use of marijuana is increasing sharply across the United States, although this rise may not be linked to the legalization of marijuana in participating states. Nevertheless, this rise in use is prompting major public health concerns.
In this article, we look at the scientific evidence weighing the medical benefits of marijuana against its associated health risks in an attempt to answer this simple question: is marijuana good or bad?
What are the medical benefits of marijuana?
Over the years, research has yielded results to suggest that marijuana may be of benefit in the treatment of some conditions. These are listed below.
Last year, a large 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.
One area that the report looked closely at was the use of medical marijuana to treat chronic pain. Chronic pain is a leading cause of disability, affecting more than 25 million adults in the U.S.
The review found that marijuana, or products containing cannabinoids — which are the active ingredients in marijuana, or other compounds that act on the same receptors in the brain as marijuana — are effective at relieving chronic pain.
Alcoholism and drug addiction
Another comprehensive review of evidence, published last year in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, revealed that using marijuana may help people with alcohol or opioid dependencies to fight their addictions.
But this finding may be contentious; the National Academies of Sciences review suggests that marijuana use actually drives increased risk for abusing, and becoming dependent on, other substances.
Also, the more that someone uses marijuana, the more likely they are to develop a problem with using marijuana. Individuals who began using the drug at a young age are also known to be at increased risk of developing a problem with marijuana use.
Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety
The review published in Clinical Psychology Review assessed all published scientific literature that investigated the use of marijuana to treat symptoms of mental illness.
a man feeling depressed
Evidence to date suggests that marijuana could help to treat some mental health conditions.
Its authors found some evidence supporting the use of marijuana to relieve depression and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
That being said, they caution that marijuana is not an appropriate treatment for some other mental health conditions, such as bipolar disorder and psychosis.
The review indicates that there is some evidence to suggest that marijuana might alleviate symptoms of social anxiety, but again, this is contradicted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine review, which instead found that regular users of marijuana may actually be at increased risk of social anxiety.
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.