Is marijuana an effective cancer therapy?
“It is already widely understood that marijuana is valuable and safe as a palliative medicine, which undermines the tenets of the Schedule 1 status,” says Gerdeman. “But additionally, there are anecdotal patient reports, increasing numbers of legitimate clinical case studies, and large amounts of preclinical studies that all indicate tumor-fighting activities of cannabinoids, and with great mechanistic detail.” Gerdeman says he wants to know whether herbal marijuana is effective in cancer therapy, and if it is, for what cancer types.
What does it do to the brain?
Studies have shown small structural changes in the brains of people who use marijuana, and researchers say there is little doubt that using marijuana has effects on the brain. However, whether those changes are actually bad, remains unknown. “This is an important question with tremendous policy implications,” says Gerdeman. “While the media interpret such [changes] de facto as evidence of damage, they are within the range of normal human variation as far as we currently understand.”
What dosage or strains have the best use in medicine?
Researchers say they want to know more about how much marijuana is needed to treat a person’s disorder, and for how long. “Like all drugs, FDA-approved therapeutics or recreational, marijuana will have some unwanted side effects,” says Sinai’s Hurd. In addition, researchers are still looking into what strains are most beneficial and whether a person needs the whole plant, or just one compound.
Can marijuana help brain and cognitive problems?
Some researchers, like Gerdeman, want to study whether marijuana could stave off Alzheimer’s disease or even mitigate brain damage from stroke or concussions. One 2014 study suggested a compound in marijuana could slow the production of proteins that accumulate when a person has Alzheimer’s.
What about anxiety?
There’s some evidence suggesting marijuana could help people with anxiety, but the relationship is still not well understood. “Without the clinical trials it may be a long time before we know for sure,” says Patel.
Can pot help end the opioid epidemic?
As TIME has previously reported, several doctors are interested in the use of marijuana as an alternative or adjunct to opioids, since the U.S. is currently in the midst of an epidemic of painkiller addiction. “If you give [opioids] alongside cannabis, there is a synergistic effect which means you can give less of the opioid and or you can give the opioid for a shorter period,” says Dr. Lester Grinspoon is Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A 2016 study found doctors in a state where marijuana was legal prescribed an average of 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers per year.
Are there long term consequences of using pot?
Scientists also want to understand whether marijuana can cause any effects over the long term, since some people may use the plant medicinally for some time. “What are the effects on the developing brain?,” says Hurd. “This is a particularly important question for me since our preclinical studies suggested that prenatal and adolescent THC exposure can have long-term impact into adulthood long after the drug was administered.”
Chances are you saw the headlines on Wednesday: "Casual marijuana use linked to brain changes," "Marijuana re-shapes brains of users, study claims" or "Casual marijuana use may damage your brain." Oh my god, marijuana is bad for my brain!
Not so fast.
"I think I saw one headline that was 'Marijuana reshapes the brain' and I groaned — that's not what we did," said Dr. Jodi Gilman, 31, author of the now-famous Harvard Medical School/Massachusetts General Hospital study on marijuana's effects, in an interview with PolicyMic.
Research is full of nuance, and nuance sometimes gets lost in the conversation. The collective freakout over this study had to do with its findings: Certain regions of the brain of people who smoke marijuana are structurally different than people who don't. That got interpreted, at least in headlines and ledes, as marijuana changes your brain.
"The conclusions were modest in the paper — we never say marijuana causes these changes," Gilman said, who's a neuroscientist with a Ph.D. from Brown University. "The media may have given that impression in headlines, but the study doesn't show causation."
It was a classic A and B study. Take group one and see how they're different from group two. That's it.
The experiment is a launching point for further research. It was conducted with 40 people from Boston, ages 18-25. Half of the participants used marijuana at least once a week but weren't dependent on the drug, and the other half weren't marijuana smokers. The smokers in the study, the experimental group, started smoking between the ages of 14 and 18 years old (16.6 years old with a standard deviation of two years). They were hooked up to an MRI, and Gilman and others found that the experimental group had structural differences in the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala regions of their brains (which relate to motivation and emotion).
MRI from the study, which shows (far right) where the marijuana group has greater brain density than the control group. Image Credit: Journal of Neuroscience
"The main point is there are differences in the brains of these two groups. The subtly is we don't know if those differences are causal and relate to function or behavior," Gilman says.
There are at least a few different explanations for the differences and their meaning. For example, maybe people who use marijuana at a young age have natural differences in their brains. Or maybe a structural change in your brain, like a higher density amygdala, doesn't necessarily lead to good or bad effects.
There's way more research that needs to be done and that's Gilman's largest takeaway for others.
Since the study came out, Gilman has received a range of feedback. Some people criticize the small sample size — she states that the next step is to conduct the study with a larger group — or the funding source, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, among others (which got a laugh out of Gilman: "Your data is your data").
"Since this paper has come out, some people think I'm a crazy conservative against legalization," she says. "I don't think anyone should go to jail for using marijuana— people can do what they want — I just want them to know what's happening to the brain."
The reality, for even pro-legalization people like myself, is that there's a dearth of research on the effects of marijuana — a psychoactive substance that many states are considering legalizing. It'd be illogical to think that a psychoactive substance that gets you high doesn't affect the brain. By definition, it does and we should be honest about that.
"It took us 40 years to convince people that smoking cigarettes was bad for them and by then, people had all these negative effects. I don't want it to take 40 years to figure out the effects of marijuana," Gilman said.
That sounds reasonable to me, and until we know more, always be a skeptic.
New Jersey constituents have pressed Christie to sign the bill, which would allow medical cannabis dispensaries to grow more than three strains of marijuana and provide edible forms of the drug. Digestible methods are better suited to children because the process maintains the medical properties while removing many of the ‘high-like’ aspects popular among recreational smokers.
Christie said on Friday that he would sign the bill into law only under the conditions that edible forms of marijuana are available only to qualified children, and that a psychiatrist and pediatrician must authorize the child’s prescription. Neither provision would preclude children from gaining access to medical cannabis, but refusing to allow adult patients access to edible marijuana may pose an unnecessary risk to those with respiratory illnesses.
Medical marijuana is currently legal in New Jersey, but the bill would permit growers to produce more strains of the drug, thereby treating a higher number of patients more accurately. Children currently need three doctors’ signatures in order to be prescribed cannabis. With the current bill proposing that only one signature be needed, Christie seems to be splitting the difference.
The state legislature has not yet revealed if it would consider the changes.
Cannabis can help relieve symptoms from cancer, muscular dystrophy, lupus, and over 30 other illnesses. The drug is known to combat insomnia, lack of appetite, general pain, movement disorders, glaucoma, and vomiting, among other maladies.
“As I have repeatedly noted, I believe that parents, not government regulators, are best suited to decide how to care for their children,” Christie said in a Friday press conference. “I am making commonsense recommendations to this legislation to ensure sick children receive the treatment their parents prefer, while maintaining appropriate safeguards. I am calling on the legislature to reconvene quickly and address these issues so that children in need can get the treatment they need.”
The governor made headlines earlier this week when Brian Wilson, the father of a two-year-old girl who suffers from a severe form of epilepsy known as Dravet syndrome, approached him asking for help.
“Please don’t let my daughter die, Governor,” Wilson said as Christie walked through a New Jersey diner surrounded by cameras. “Don’t let my daughter die.”
“These are complicated issues,” Christie said, to which Wilson replied it should actually be quite an easy decision.
“I know you think it’s simple and it’s not,” Christie responded.
Wilson told reporters after the scrum that if Christie did not agree to sign the bill on Friday he would be forced to move his family to Colorado, where children with Dravet have been cured of overwhelming seizures by using cannabis.
by Tom Angell
Project SAM’s Kevin Sabet and other prohibition advocates have seized on a new Wall Street Journal op-ed rehashing claims that marijuana use may be correlated with schizophrenia:
Why isn’t this getting more play? Doc at Yale School of Medicine: Pot-Smoking & the Schizophrenia Connection...
— Kevin Sabet (@KevinSabet)
Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, in a piece titled, “A Really Good Reason Not to Legalize Pot,” claims that “the move toward legalization of marijuana is premised on the assumption that it is ‘safe.’”
The argument that marijuana should be legalized because it is safe or safer than other substances like alcohol is an argument that some reformers often make, but it’s not an argument you’ll ever see me making, and it’s certainly not the only reason people in our movement want to end prohibition.
In my view, getting sucked into a debate over whether marijuana is good or bad is an unhelpful distraction from the core issues we need people to understand about prohibition.
Even if some people think that marijuana is the most dangerous thing in the world and refuse to change their minds about that, advocates can still convince them to support legalization by detailing how prohibition only increases any harms associated with the drug compared to how those harms could be lessened and better managed under legal regulation.
When you make marijuana illegal, you make it impossible to test and label it for potency and purity. You make it impossible to enact age restrictions, thereby increasing access to teens. You make it so that all decisions about where, when, how and to whom marijuana is sold are made by drug dealers instead of by lawmakers and regulators with input from public health advocates. You make it so that marijuana use is criminalized and stigmatized, often making people who develop dependency issues afraid to seek help. You make it so that scarce public resources are wasted on arresting, prosecuting and locking people up instead of funding treatment and prevention programs.
And so on. Every possible harm associated with marijuana is clearly made much, much worse by prohibition.
While reformers are right that science shows marijuana to be a safer alternative to alcohol and other legal substances, I fear that my colleagues who lead with this argument are missing an opportunity to get as many new people as possible onto our side. Sure, it makes marijuana users who already support reform feel justified in their beliefs, but focusing on trying to get people to change their minds about marijuana the drug as opposed to marijuana laws can easily lead those people we still need to convince to incorrectly believe that supporting legalization is only for those who love marijuana or want to use it. And it can give people the impression that marijuana use is going to become much more widespread after prohibition ends.
At best, I fear that these arguments are a distraction from the real issues. At worst, they can make people who are on the fence go over to the other side.
Now, I’m aware that polls show a correlation between being aware that marijuana is safer than alcohol and support for marijuana legalization. I just think it’s much harder to actually get people to change their minds about marijuana the drug than it is to get them to understand the practical case for marijuana policy reform.
So, while I’m sure some of my colleagues in the movement will rightfully pick apart the holes in the above-mentioned prohibitionist screeds about schizophrenia – and for the sake of science I’m glad they will – I’d rather see more movement resources devoted to getting people to understand the mental health impact of being handcuffed and tossed in the back of a police cruiser than the mental health impact of marijuana itself.
I think the former is a much easier argument to win.