Understanding the Risks of Cannabis Use: A Right and Responsibility

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With Great Power Comes Great Responsiblity

With the use of cannabis growing throughout the US, it's the right of patients and the responsibility of cannabis professionals to truly understand the substance -- not just the benefits of cannabis use, but the risks as well. In a Pew Research study in 2013, 7% of Americans claimed to be current users of marijuana. Just three years later, the number had climbed to 13%, approximately 1 in 8 adults.

While we cover many of the benefits of using cannabis in this blog and our Cannabis Institute courses, it's also important to educate the community about any potential risks. One of these is known as Marijuana Use Disorder, a condition which is currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). At present, the National Institutes of Health estimate that nearly 6 million people in the US suffer from this disorder.

So, what is it? Marijuana Use Disorder is defined on a continuum, from mild to severe, and is characterized by unsuccessful efforts to limit or reduce use or cravings, increased tolerance and continued use, despite negative consequences. If the individual experiences at least two of these within a 12 month period, they may experiencing this disorder.

Although marijuana use disorder gets the most attention in the press, it is not the only risk associated with cannabis use. For a professional opinion on the broader view of risks involved, we turned to Beatriz H. Carlini, Ph.D., MPH, research scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Dr. Carlini has authored numerous peer reviewed articles regarding substance use, risk, and abuse. Her team developed cannabis training for healthcare professionals specializing in chronic pain for the WA State Attorney General.

We asked Dr. Carlini what she thought the public should know regarding the potential benefits and risks of using cannabis.

"The cannabinoids in the marijuana plant are effective on controlling chronic pain," she notes. "This is well established. That being said, and as any other medication, it does not work for everybody."

Dr. Carlini is very pragmatic regarding the limits of benefit to some people. Although it may be a good fit for some patients, it is not a panacea and will not be the best answer for everyone.

"Medications for pain should provide relief of symptoms while restoring or maintaining function, or the ability to be productive," Dr. Carlini states. "It is a tricky balance. If you benefit from cannabis for managing your pain, but you are pretty much 'out of it' for most of the day and unable to work or take care of your business, you may want to explore another alternative."

As cannabis professionals, we move our industry forward by supporting and seeking to understand the science behind it. Accordingly, we're particularly that Dr. Carlini has joined the faculty of the Cannabis Institute, and to offer her online course Cannabis Research & Health Risks.

In developing the course, Dr. Carlini had two important goals.

"First, [I wanted] to stimulate a conversation around all the challenges involved in the production of knowledge around marijuana in the US," she explains. "The second contribution I hope this course can make is to stimulate critical thinking about some of the risks involved in using cannabis, [particularly] for those who are already aware and convinced of cannabis' medical properties."

We hope that those interested in learning more about the research at the foundation of our understanding of cannabis will join Dr. Carlini for this informative class. Cannabis professionals, patients and caregivers should all find value in this excellent opportunity to learn from a world class researcher and increase their understanding of this crucial topic.

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Trey Reckling is the founder and operator of the Academy of Cannabis Science. He works in collaboration with Seattle Central College's Cannabis Institute to offer quality, science-based education to members of the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.