By Sy Mukherjee
April 20, 2018

Today is April 20, aka 4/20, aka a day now synonymous with entirely too many bad marijuana puns online. The infamous “stoner holiday” is one of the best known elements of the cannabis boom and, perhaps inevitably given the drug’s counter-culture reputation, invites plenty of jokes (and no small share of recriminations)—not to mention a cascade of businesses hawking deals aimed squarely at 4/20 revelers and weed enthusiasts in the face of rapidly growing cannabis sales as more states legalize it for medical and recreational use.

These recent regulatory, political, business, and even scientific shifts in key stakeholders’ attitudes toward marijuana make 2018 a fascinating moment in the debate over the plant. And a key question that many Americans ask is: What are marijuana’s actual health effects?

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The research into this field is still ongoing, especially given the logistical issues of investigating a substance with such an evolving legal status. But a number of recent developments (including in the last few days alone) suggest marijuana can, in fact, be medically beneficial—and that lawmakers are catching on to that possibility.

What are the health benefits of marijuana?

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel gave a resounding recommendation to GW Pharmaceuticals’ cannabis-based medicine Epidiolex on Thursday. The decision wasn’t even close—the expert group of panelists described the treatment, derived from the non-THC cannabis component cannabidiol (CBD) and meant to treat rare childhood epilepsy disorders, as a “breakthrough” to treat a horrible disease. The unanimous committee vote almost assures the FDA will approve the therapy as the first-ever marijuana-based drug in the U.S., likely by June.

Also on Thursday, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed federal marijuana decriminilization. Last week, former Republican House Speaker and (until now) career-long marijuana antagonist John Boehner joined the board of marijuana cultivation company Acreage Holdings. Boehner specifically cited medical marijuana’s potential to treat veterans’ PTSD and chronic pain as a common sense way of addressing the opioid epidemic in explaining his mindshift.

Then again, it’s possible these changes are at least somewhat rooted in lawmakers seeing the writing on the political wall. 30 states and the District of Columbia have broadly legalized the use of cannabis in some shape or form, and eight states, plus DC, have fully legalized marijuana. There are billions of dollars at stake in the burgeoning business.

What do the latest studies say about marijuana and your health?

But other independent scientific bodies (including the panel of FDA experts who endorsed Epidiolex) have also noted potential marijuana health benefits while still cautioning against its risks. One of the most comprehensive reports on the issue to date was a massive National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study released in January 2017. It’s a checkered analysis, and some conclusions carry more certainty than others.

For instance, cannabis products probably do, based on current evidence, help treat chronic pain, prevent nausea in cancer patients under chemotherapy, and improve patient-reported outcomes for muscle problems in people with certain diseases, according to the report. There’s moderate evidence it can help certain kinds of patients sleep better.

What are the health risks of marijuana?

On the other hand, inhaled marijuana isn’t the best for the lungs, especially over the long term, and smoking cannabis while pregnant may be associated with lower birth weight. Driving while intoxicated in any way is also a recipe for possibly tragedy and there’s also some evidence that heavy marijuana use may exacerbate the possibility of a psychiatric episode in people who are at-risk for it.

But much of this is still relatively early stage analysis. What’s clear on the still-hazy science of cannabis is that more detailed research needs to be (and probably will be) done in the coming years.

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