The Effects Of Marijuana Use Still Puzzle Scientists, New Government Rules Allow Expanded Study Of Cannabis

Marijuana remains a Schedule I drug in the United States, at least for now. However, the federal government has recently loosened some restrictions allowing cultivation of the plant to help study the effects of marijuana use, but many scientists do not think the relaxed guidelines go far enough.

While experts disagree about the actual health benefits of medical marijuana, none can understand the government's resistance to the safe research of cannabis.

"I understand the cautious nature of the government, whose role is basically to protect its citizens, but it is disappointing that marijuana continues to be included on the DEA's list of the most dangerous drugs," said Dr. Yasmin Hurd of Mount Sinai.

The effects of marijuana use can now be studied legally.
Under revised government rules, researchers will be able to expand studies on the effects of marijuana use. [Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images]

Even though over 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, scientists know very little about the drug.

"It's actually quite amazing how little we really know about something that has been used for thousands of years," said Sachin Patel of Vanderbilt University. "We desperately need well-controlled unbiased large scale research studies into the efficacy of cannabis for treating disease states, which we have very little of right now."

Many scientists say the study of cannabis is not considered dangerous, and the government doesn't need to make it more difficult, especially since many in the medical community think cannabis is a "very safe, well-tolerated medicine." Researchers really just want the ability to study how patients may or may not benefit from its use.

A recent Time article breaks down what scientists are really trying to find out about cannabis.

Can marijuana help cancer patients? There are numerous reports from patients as well as clinical case studies that suggest cannabinoids may slow the growth of cancerous tumors. While these claims are unproven, researchers want the opportunity to study the possibility. If cannabis therapy turns out to be a real tumor fighter, scientists will further study how the effects of marijuana use alter specific cancer types.

How does marijuana affect the brain? While it is clear cannabis does change the brains of weed smokers, researchers really do not know if the effects of marijuana use are good or bad. Some scientists automatically assume the brain becomes damaged from cannabis use, yet research needs to be done to determine if the changes are within "normal human variation."

A study done in 2014 suggested the effects of marijuana could also help people suffering from brain disorders like Alzheimer's disease, and scientists want the opportunity to expand on that research. There is even a strong belief cannabis could slow or stop brain damage caused by a stroke or concussion.

For medicinal purposes, is there a certain dosage or strain of marijuana that should be used? Before cannabis can be used as a standard medical treatment, studies need to be conducted to understand how much marijuana is needed to treat a condition and for how long. Researchers also want to know what side effects of marijuana use are expected and what strains of cannabis work the most effectively. Researchers need to work on isolating certain compounds in the plant that provide specific health benefits as well.

Can the effects of marijuana use stop the abuse of opioids? The U.S. is in the middle of a severe opioid addiction epidemic, and many health practitioners think marijuana could be used as an alternative to traditional painkillers. By recommending cannabis therapy alongside a painkiller prescription, a person can take a lower dose of an opioid for a shorter time, according to Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon. A study done earlier this year revealed doctors wrote fewer opioid prescriptions in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Studying the effects of marijuana use is more important now than ever.
Some doctors think marijuana legalization can help end the opioid abuse epidemic in the U.S. [Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images]

What are the long-term concerns of cannabis use? Once a patient begins using medical marijuana, there is a possibility the treatment will be used for an extended period of time. Scientists would like to understand what THC, the chemical in cannabis that is responsible for the infamous mind-altering effects, does to the brain after months or years of use. This is crucial since some previous studies have indicated that exposure does have an effect on the brain years after weed is smoked.

Even after countless requests to remove marijuana from the Schedule I drug list, the plant still remains as dangerous as heroin and LSD in the government's eyes. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, cannabis is a Schedule I substance with no medical value, which prevents doctors from prescribing the drug or even monitoring the effects of marijuana use. This continued controversial classification leaves many states, researchers, and users feeling burned.

[Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]