I keep hearing about how marijuana is a good treatment for all kinds of things. What conditions do we have actual research about when it comes to marijuana as a medicine?
Thanks for your question.
You have heard the statement time and again from politicians and opponents of policy reform alike: “…we need more time to conduct research and study the plant before we think about changing the laws.”
This statement is largely disingenuous. The cannabis plant is actually one of the most widely studied plants worldwide.
A search of the US Library of Medicine database, PubMed, revealed approximately 28,000 studies on the use of cannabis. The problem is that the vast majority of these studies come from outside of the United States.
Because marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, it makes the regulatory burden for studying marijuana in the United States extremely high.
Earlier this year, in collaboration with our partners at MAPS, DPA put out a report which explains the “Catch 22” scientists in the United States face when trying to conduct research on the health effects of marijuana. Additionally, most of the research being conducted around marijuana in the United States originates out of the National Institutes for Drug Abuse, and if the name of the agency doesn’t give you insight into the bias of its approach to research, the mission of the agency should give you a clue.
Nevertheless, there is promising research around the benefits of cannabis around a significant number of health conditions. One of the most promising and timely research studies which has come out this year looks at the growing evidence that cannabis can be used as a substitution therapy for prescription narcotics. The study in JAMA, looked at states which have reformed their laws around marijuana whether medical or recreational and found a 25 percent decrease in prescription overdose deaths.
However, it is only half of the battle to get access to a study if you have never been instructed on the proper way to read one. With this in mind, here’s a crash course on how to interpret a scientific study:
Abstract: This is the “Cliff notes” version of a scientific study. It quickly summarizes everything about the study from introduction to conclusion in about four to five sentences. After reading a good abstract you should be able to understand what the study is about.
Introduction: This section lays out the problem and rationale for why the study is taking place. Good introduction sections will even reference previous work which has been done in the area and what question the study in question is hoping to answer that will provide new information on the topic.
Materials and Methods: This is often the most overlooked section in a scientific paper, but is often the most important. This section outlines how the study was done, the number and type of people included and excluded from the study, and any statistical analysis conducted to arrive at the results. This section is important in order to determine whether or not the results can be applied to a larger audience.
Results: This section is pretty self-explanatory - it describes what the study found.
Conclusion: This section puts the results back in the context of the problem which was described in the introduction. It is also the section which outlines the limitations of a study and what future studies should consider exploring to provide more insight.
Now that you have the basics on how to read a scientific paper, you should practice reading one yourself. Naturally it may be difficult and time consuming the first few times, but over time you will get better at it.
Not only with this make you better informed about the research that is coming out around cannabis, it will also better prepare you to take a critical look at the negative studies which come out around cannabis, many of which overstate the claims in order to make news.
Dr. Malik Burnett is a former surgeon and physician advocate. He also served as executive director of a medical marijuana nonprofit organization. Amanda Reiman, PhD, holds a doctorate in Social Welfare and teaches classes on drug policy at the University of California-Berkeley.
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