Weed has been a very controversial topic in the media in the recent past. In fact, during just one month in 2014, 7 million tweets referenced it worldwide.
But let’s start with the basics. Weed, or marijuana as it is also called, is a drug that is derived from the cannabis plant and contains many chemicals called cannabinoids. The weed that is used recreationally usually contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which is responsible for most of the psychological effects or “highs” the users are after. A different type of weed, however, which is rich in cannabidiol (CBD) has received more attention as a medicine as it is unable to get people high. Currently, it is the most widely used illegal drug in the UK, with recent estimates suggesting that up to a quarter of a billion people are users globally.
Extensive research has been done into the positive effects of weed on health, and the most-talked about topic seems to be treating cancer. It is known that THC and CBD are capable of reducing the side effects of chemotherapy treatments. However, studies have shown both cannabinoids may be able to to stop tumour growth and prevent the cancer from spreading in a variety of cases, including lung, breast and brain cancer. In some cases the cannabinoids seemed to even make the cancer disappear altogether.
However, the benefits of weed don’t stop there. A study conducted by neuroscientists at the University of South Florida has found that it may slow down or even completely stop the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, which currently has no cure. Tiny amounts of THC have been shown to reduce the production of a protein called amyloid beta which is thought to accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
In addition, research published by the American Academy of Neurology showed that a medicinal liquid containing cannabidiol reduced seizures in people with 12 different types of severe epilepsy by an average of 54%. All the subjects had forms of epilepsy that did not respond to any other treatments.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re currently wondering why weed is still illegal in so many countries, including England. Unfortunately, the reality isn’t as good as it appears.
A study from Australia released some pretty scary statistics. It stated that those who were daily users of cannabis before the age of 17 are more than 60% more likely to drop out of education, eight times more likely to use other illegal drugs and seven times more likely to attempt suicide than those who did not smoke weed. Obviously, there are some tricky social factors to be navigated here, and whilst the relationship between weed and suicidal thoughts is complex (it has even been suggested that cannabis could treat depression), there are some correlations here that cannot be ignored
Research by German scientists found that chronic users who started using cannabis as adolescents had mild to moderate deficits in attention, learning, retention and planning ability that were sometimes present even four weeks after they had given it up. The results in adults were nowhere near as bad, suggesting that the drug has a bigger effect on younger people.
Another study carried out at the Northwestern University in Chicago discovered that teens who are heavy marijuana users have an abnormal hippocampus, which is a part of the brain important for long-term memory. The abnormalities, which are caused by cannabinoid damage, were linked directly to memory problems and were present in young adults even two years after they stopped abusing the drug. This then led to difficulties such as solving day-to-day problems and maintaining relationships. A study from the University of Barcelona also showed that the incidence of false memories also increased, stopping us from being able to distinguish between reality and imagined events. The more irregular the hippocampus, the worse the symptoms appeared to be.
The big question is, do the benefits of weed outweigh the potential problems it could cause?
Neel Nabar, who was a co-author of the previously mentioned Alzheimer’s study, claims “it's important to keep in mind that just because a drug may be effective doesn't mean it can be safely used by anyone”. He also talked about how the research that has been done into the benefits of weed may be used to develop other compounds that are “safe, legal and useful”.
One cholesterol drug, called fenofibrate, has already been shown to have some of the desired medical effects of weed. It may be beneficial for the relief of pain and nausea, appetite stimulation and the treatment of other psychiatric and neurological conditions in the future.
Weed is likely to remain a controversial subject for a very long time, meaning we probably won’t see it legalised in England any time soon. However, research into its medical properties will continue, and we can only hope that it will lead the way for new and more effective treatments for many diseases.