A recent poll from The Huffington Post and YouGov claimed that more respondents were in favor of legalizing marijuana than were opposed to it. Results showed a favorable public bias, with 70% of respondents supporting the legalization of medical marijuana compared to 17% that opposed it. Legalizing marijuana as a whole saw a slightly tighter vote, though 51% of respondents were still in favor of making it legal, compared to just 34% who said it should not be legal.
Just because the public’s perception of marijuana is rapidly evolving does not mean we necessarily have all of the pertinent facts about the drug. It is not hard to find conflicting reports on whether marijuana is a drug that helps or hinders users. There is a dangerous misconception that researchers have a handle on marijuana’s risks versus benefits profile.
Although anecdotal reports abound, few randomized controlled studies support the use of medical marijuana for psychiatric conditions. The meager evidence for benefits must be carefully weighed against the documented risks, particularly for young people who use marijuana.
A Harvard Mental Health Letter points out a number of psychiatric risks associated with marijuana use, including addiction, anxiety, mood disorders, and other forms of psychosis. The letter also alludes to studies that have suggested long-term marijuana use can lead to “persistent cognitive problems.”
However, some studies have suggested that medical marijuana could be a critical component to affordable healthcare. A consensus exists that marijuana may be helpful in treating certain carefully defined medical conditions. An abstract published by JAMA Internal Medicine in August found that in the states where medical marijuana was considered legal through 2010 exhibited a nearly 25% reduction in opioid-induced overdose deaths. This is a significant number of saved lives.
The truth is we really just do not know a lot about marijuana’s benefit versus risk profile because, as a schedule 1 drug, there simply has not been any reason for the U.S government to support ongoing research into its effects, be they good or bad. This will change in the future.
In Oregon, Alaska, and Washington, D.C., voters will decide whether to approve marijuana for recreational use, while Floridians will weigh in on whether it will become the 24th state to approve marijuana for medical purposes. Clearly, marijuana use is here to stay and science needs to be allowed to catch up with research for the benefit of all.