Cannabis Eases Pain But May Increase Risk of Mental Illness, Report Says

By Dorri Olds 01/18/17

The lengthy report debunked a few marijuana myths and revealed potential negative health risks.

Hand holding a joint.

This month, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report which explores the health effects associated with cannabis and cannabis-derived products.

Some in the scientific and medical communities are interested in studying the yet unknown health effects during our nation’s unprecedented growth spurt, acceptance, and use of cannabis and its related products. The report considered more than 10,000 scientific abstracts before reaching close to 100 conclusions, according to a statement by the National Academies outlining the in-depth report.

“[T]he lack of any aggregated knowledge of cannabis-related health effects has led to uncertainty about what, if any, are the harms or benefits from its use,” said Marie McCormick of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and chair of the report’s committee.

Many of us are familiar with the benefits of cannabis. So let's explore the research surrounding its potential negatives. The report's findings showed that cannabis and cannabinoids successfully eased chronic pain, improved symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and reduced nausea and vomiting in people undergoing chemotherapy.

But the evidence also suggested that cannabis use "is likely to" increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, other psychoses, and social anxiety disorders. For those already diagnosed with schizophrenia and other psychoses, however, having a history of cannabis use appeared to improve performance on learning and memory tasks.

According to the report, people who reported chronic marijuana use were more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Of those who were bipolar, almost daily cannabis use led to increased symptoms of bipolar disorder compared to non-users.

Though the research committee found "limited evidence" showing that cannabis use is a "gateway drug," they did present moderate evidence linking cannabis use and the development of substance use disorder for alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

The report also found some evidence that smoking marijuana "may trigger a heart attack," but noted that more research is needed to determine the relationship between cannabis and heart health.

A regular habit of smoking cannabis seemed to increase the prevalence of bronchitis, chronic cough, and phlegm. But the research also suggested that smoking pot does not increase the risk for lung, head, or neck cancers which are related to tobacco use. 

Learning, memory, and attention are impaired after immediate use of marijuana, said the report, and using before driving seemed to increase the risk of car accidents.

Limited evidence suggested that cannabis use was related to problems with academic achievement or social relationships. Smoking pot during pregnancy was linked to low birth weight, but evidence was weak for any other pregnancy complications. 

Researcher McCormick said that the growing accessibility and use of cannabis and its derivatives “have raised important public health concerns.” The lack of knowledge of cannabis-related health effects “has led to uncertainty about what, if any, are the harms or benefits from its use … As laws and policies continue to change, research must also.”

The report’s most significant conclusion seems to be that many more studies into the effects of using cannabis and its chemical cousins are needed to truly understand its effect on one's health.

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.