Scientific Research Although cannabis remains a banned substance in most countries, changes have taken place and new alternative policies are being adopted. Thanks to a new dawning era of cannabis legalization, scientific research on medicinal cannabis is growing rapidly and continues to provide scientific evidence demonstrating its therapeutic benefits.
Cannabis Remains Prohibited Despite Legislative and Scientific Progress
Although cannabis remains a banned substance in many countries, over the past few decades the trend towards regulating its use for medical and therapeutic purposes has been consolidating globally. Much remains to be done if the progress made is to be secured, but it is clear that changes are taking place in the global debate on drug policy, especially with regard to cannabis.
Time has shown that the “war on drugs“, which began when Nixon was president of the United States, has been a major failure. Its harms have outweighed its supposed benefits: in addition to costing a fortune, it has destroyed countless lives and has overcrowded prisons. As a result, a new model of public health in the area of drugs has been generated, as have alternative policies at the local level in different countries to decriminalize and legalize cannabis, despite the fact that these policies do not comply with the international regulatory framework.
Prohibition Does Not Stop Science
At the same time, research on medical cannabis over the past two decades has not ceased to increase and provide evidence of the plant’s medical value. However, it is clear that these results have not been considered by the international cannabis control regime.
We cannot overlook the fact that there is no international law prohibiting the scientific or medical use of cannabis or any other substance. In fact, medical cannabis as such is not prohibited by the UN drug control conventions. Nonetheless, since 1961 it has been part of Schedules I and IV of Controlled Substances, which are reserved for the most harmful and dangerous narcotics having little or no medical value.
As a result, medical and scientific research has been highly constrained for many decades. For this reason, a large part of the medical community has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of the cannabis ban. Nevertheless, things have changed and continue to do so.
In 2019 the first official WHO evaluation of the therapeutic value of the cannabis plant in more than 80 years will be released. If the Organization recommends to the UN the reclassification of cannabis off these lists, the long-awaited legalization of cannabis may become a reality and researchers will be free to study the plant.
Exponential Increase in Cannabis Research: Trends
For the time being, and thanks to the onset of a new era of cannabis legalization, thousands of studies on cannabis and cannabinoids are published each year by the scientific community. They evaluate data, which is now available thanks to the efforts of the cannabis policy reform movement, and try to provide answers, especially to those who need them most, namely, medical patients.
The dramatic increase in the number of scientific publications on cannabis in recent years is so spectacular that it has been the subject of analysis and study by a team of researchers from Israel, one of the countries that has led medical cannabis research since the 1960s. The study in question, published on October 8 2018 in the Population Health Management journal, is entitled Trends in Publications on Medical Cannabis from the Year 2000.
The authors of the paper have used specialized Internet databases such as PubMed and Web of Science to try and collect all the cannabis publications that have been released since 2000, and to analyse trends in scientific publications that focus on cannabis. Today, there is an enormous quantity and varied quality of scientific data, and this study is a fundamental tool that optimizes the way we access it.
It seems as though research on cannabis and cannabinoids is taking such large strides that it even surpasses research growth in other fields. According to the study, over the past 18 years, the total number of scientific publications in PubMed has grown by 2.5 times. In comparison, the number of publications about cannabis on the same website has increased by almost 4.5 times, from 620 to 2,388 articles; while the total number of publications on medical cannabis increased by almost 9 times in the same period, from 82 to 742 publications.
The article concludes that “the results of the present study demonstrate a continuous increase in the number of publications related to cannabis in general and medical cannabis in particular“. (…) “The increase in the number of medical publications on medicinal cannabis that began in 2013 is impressive and encouraging“.
Sorting of Publications by Fields of Medicine
In order to simplify the analysis of the publications collected and to “help researchers and policy-makers target areas where data are scarce or unavailable“, these studies were divided into groups, depending on the field (or fields) of medicine in which they could be involved. Consequently, they sorted the publications into three main groups: psychiatry, cancer treatment, and neurology.
While most research took place in the area of psychiatry, publications in the fields of neurology and cancer increased significantly between 2011 and 2013. Also, since 2013, there has been an increase in the number of publications focusing on children and the elderly.
Publications in the field of psychiatry have primarily focused on the effects of cannabis and of its two most important active compounds, CBD and THC, in the treatment of psychiatric conditions such as psychosis, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or to help treat dependence to highly addictive substances such as crack, cocaine and opiates.
Next, we find publications that discuss the use of cannabis, cannabinoids or cannabis derivatives to help treat and alleviate the symptoms suffered by cancer patients, such as pain, nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, loss of appetite and weight, depression and anxiety.
In the field of neurology there are publications about the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids in the treatment of illnesses and disorders such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and Tourette syndrome, among others.
According to the authors of the study, “the specific subjects with the higher number of publications were HIV/AIDS (261), chronic pain (179), multiple sclerosis (118), nausea and vomiting (102), and epilepsy (88)“.
The United States and Canada at the Forefront of Cannabis Research
Interestingly, the United States is the country where more than 50% of the publications on medical cannabis are written and published. This occurs despite the fact that cannabis remains a banned substance at the federal level, while paradoxically, more than half of its states (29) have legalized it for medical use and have medical cannabis programs in place, in addition to the 9 states where recreational use is allowed (California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Washington, DC).
North America appears to be at the forefront of cannabis research. Canada is the second country, after the United States, where most research publications on cannabis are written and where, incidentally, legalization of medical and recreational cannabis have just occurred. The country is responsible for 7.5 percent of the revised publications, and according to article, “more than 66% of the papers were original studies”
As mentioned earlier, for many years, medical research on cannabis has been severely restricted and constrained by the prohibitionist policies adopted in the 1970s. As the study points out, it is clear that the increase in the number of publications in the last 20 years corresponds to the efforts of legalization of the plant at the state and international levels.
“The absence of an increase in cannabis publications until recent years would appear to be related to the United Nations Single Convention banning the recreational use of cannabis, which was widely supported by most developed countries.” (…) “ It should be noted that the significant growth in the number of medical cannabis publications since 2013 runs parallel to the appearance of legislation that allowed the use of recreational cannabis in the states of Washington and Colorado in 2012, in Alaska and Oregon in 2014, and subsequently in many other countries around the world.”
An Encouraging Increase
The article remarks that the increase in the number of publications, especially since 2013, is undoubtedly encouraging. The increase “should provide data, support and confidence, and should open up new horizons for the treatment of patients“, and the authors hope that the number of publications in this area will continue to increase in the coming years.
As the article discussed reveals, research on the effects of cannabis on our health is much needed. It is clear that prohibition has not been an obstacle to science, because the data have been supporting the potential benefits of the use of medical cannabis in the treatment of a wide range of diseases and disorders.
Once the legal status of cannabis changes at the international level, both scientific research and clinical practice will cease to be hindered in their mission to assist those who need help the most, namely, patients. And finally, we shall again be able to include the cannabis plant freely and without restrictions in the current pharmacopoeia, as it previously was before for many centuries.