Cannabis research is important and necessary to improve our understanding of the plant, and more is generally better. Still, there are problems that come with the proliferation of cannabis research and readers should be cautiously skeptical.
Scientific studies are great, and an integral part of pushing cannabis culture into the future. But research isn't always conducted the standards we might like them to be, says Josh Kaplan, a postdoctorate fellow in neuroscience at the University of Washington who specializes in medical cannabis research.
"Because the range and quality of cannabis studies—and just the variability of the data collection techniques—whatever you want, you can find support for it," Kaplan told Herb.
Kaplan says one of the biggest issues he has noticed in many cannabis studies is that they often don't use the kind of cannabis people actually use. Oftentimes, researchers are testing synthetic cannabinoids, or single compounds.
"Instead of looking at normal human use patterns, let’s hit the brain with a ton of just THC. Which we know is not normal human use patterns, because there are other cannabinoids [in cannabis] that are present, some that counteract THC’s effect."
Of course, there is use for this sort of thing, as synthetics are far easier to access within the bounds of US law and specific compounds are sometimes found to be particularly useful for one purpose or another. Take the acceptance of CBD as an anti-seizure medication, for instance.
Beyond these issues, many studies ignore things like the socioeconomic situations of the people they are researching, says Joelle Puccio, a researcher who sits on the board of People's Harm Reduction Alliance.
"With cannabis, when you look at poor people who have had generations of systemic oppression based on race or poverty or whatever, they do poorly," she says. "When we look at middle-class people who maybe haven’t had much systemic oppression or racism, they do okay. And then when we look at rich people, they do great! It’s not really cannabis that we’re looking at."
Some studies also fail to account for other substances that people may be consuming beyond cannabis argues Kaplan, such as alcohol, or cigarettes.
"Is it cannabis, is it the combination of nicotine with THC? That does seem to have harmful effects. It’s hard to isolate the impact of cannabis alone on brain development."
And, Puccio suggests, the best way to judge the studies is by actually reading them. Find out who was studied (animals, people with specific conditions), how many people were included in the sample (more is generally better) and what was and wasn't controlled. Placebo-based, double-blind trials are worth looking out for, too.
But designing perfect research is hard, maybe impossible. The reality of mistakes in science is the exact reason why topics are continuously re-evaluated, and studied from various angles. This doesn't excuse shoddy work however, and readers should exercise some healthy skepticism.