One of the most common arguments against the efficacy of medical cannabis today is that public policy is outpacing real science. Currently, 33 states along with the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have passed laws for comprehensive medical cannabis programs — but critics often point out we’re lacking definitive proof that marijuana safely and effectively treats many of the qualifying conditions.
There are two things wrong with this argument. First, plenty of pharmaceutical drugs, that we broadly accept as legitimate medicine, received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration without conclusive proof, or even convincing evidence that they safely work. And the safety and efficacy of those drugs aren’t even buttressed by a mountain of anecdotal evidence — unlike cannabis use, which has thousands of years of documentation.
Second, while it’s true that decades of the federal government’s restrictive cannabis policies have largely prevented scientists from conducting the double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that we’ve come to equate with gold-standard scientific proof that certain medications are effective and safe, it’s far from true that there’s no evidence to support the efficacy of cannabis as an alternative medicine.
Setting aside the fact that a significant percentage of so-called “gold-standard” clinical trials are poorly designed and funded by companies with financial incentives to fast-track approval of their drugs, clinical trials are not the only type of evidence that matters. Just because we don’t yet have clinical trial results that confirm medical cannabis relieves pain, or eases insomnia, or reduces inflammation, etc., doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
Despite widespread dismissiveness toward anecdotal evidence, it’s been more than two decades since California became the first state to legalize medical cannabis. That means we have 20-plus years of anecdotal evidence supporting the efficacy of medical marijuana.
This has value.
When tens of thousands of people report similar beneficial effects from medical marijuana products, chances are they’re onto something. That body of anecdotal evidence has long since passed the point of critical mass — it’s no longer appropriate to shrug off anecdotal accounts as nothing more than unfounded hearsay.
For example, when thousands of people say medical cannabis has helped them reduce or discontinue their use of opiates, that’s compelling evidence. And it’s backed by strong preliminary research, like findings from a 2018 study published in Nature affiliate journal Neuropsychopharmacology that support the use of the cannabis-derived compound cannabidiol (CBD) for preventing drug addiction and relapse.
There is research — just not in the U.S.
In fact, an ever-growing body of preliminary research documents the safety and efficacy of cannabis for a number of ailments, including but not limited to chronic pain, asthma, inflammatory skin conditions and symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Much of that research comes from other countries such as Israel, which have embraced medical cannabis research, rather than making it prohibitively difficult. We also have solid evidence that unadulterated medical cannabis is nontoxic and relatively safe; while millions of Americans consume cannabis every year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports: “There are no reports of teens or adults dying from marijuana alone.”
PubMed, the scientific research database maintained by the National Institutes of Health, lists nearly 20,000 studies relating to marijuana or cannabinoids. For comparison, about a third of pharmaceutical medicines on the U.S. market were approved by the FDA on the basis of a single clinical trial — and many such trials were quite small in size and short in duration.
Even in the absence of gold-standard clinical trials, the colossal body of evidence supporting medical marijuana’s relative safety and efficacy is far more comprehensive than the FDA standard for most pharmaceutical medications. And when we recognize this truth, the evidentiary value of lived human experience becomes clear.
Millions of people across this country utilize this plant for therapeutic and medical purposes for one reason: It works.
It’s not hype. It’s not myth. Cannabis is real medicine.
Dahlia Mertens is the founder and CEO of Mary Jane’s Medicinals, a leading cannabis topicals company practicing natural, whole-plant infusion at its Colorado production facility since 2009.