Our Complete Guide to the Medical Health Benefits of Cannabis
Pretty much everyone likely knows, at least partially, what cannabis is – the flowering plant that has recently set the world of medicine on fire is slowly recovering from another, less positive reputation. Whether it’s from catching Harold and Kumar on late-night TV or from slightly more, uh, direct exposure (we don’t judge) we’re sure you’re aware of it in some manner; even if you haven’t heard too much about its medical benefits.
See, cannabis has been used for millennia as both medicine and as a tool to aid users on spiritual journeys. In the past fifty years or so, however, people have mainly come to consider it a tool to help them sit on the couch, watch fail compilations on YouTube and munch their way through most of the contents of their kitchen. This article is here to help bust that stereotype – whilst there isn’t anything wrong with the above, it doesn’t even begin to cover the amazing qualities that medicinal cannabis possesses.
We’re not alone in saying this, of course. There’s a great deal of traction behind the pro-cannabis campaign – one that can be seen in the ever-growing number of US states that have made the decision to decriminalise it. On the whole, however, the plant is still frequently misunderstood and reduced to the status of a mind-numbing, laziness-inducing recreational drug by those whose interests lie against it.
This guide is designed to dispel the myths surrounding this flowering plant and its rich history and put its potential uses into perspective. The debate surrounding cannabis is rather charged, with strong opinions abounding on both sides of the argument. We’ll be examining its usage as both a medicine and as a recreational substance, attempting to clarify as many of the misconceptions on the subject as possible.
Why do people think cannabis is bad?
Largely in part due to the war against cannabis that the American government launched in the 20th Century, many countries around the world swung the hammer down upon the flowering herb and criminalised it. A useful example to illustrate just how demonised cannabis has become in the past 100 years or so is the name for the plant you might be most familiar with – ‘marijuana’.
Whilst ‘marijuana’ is the most common term used to refer to cannabis, we won’t be using it in this article. There are many sources which strongly imply that the word was highly-favoured by anti-cannabis legislators in the USA because it sounded more exotic, allowing them to link the illegal status of the plant to Latino communities, thereby painting such groups as criminally-inclined (this was particularly true of Mexico, who were one of the major countries to cultivate it for recreational purposes). It’s therefore a pretty racially-charged term, so we’ll be dropping it in favour of its scientific name instead.
Despite a concentrated effort on behalf of many governmental bodies to portray cannabis as a destructive force in society, criminalising cannabis simply contributed to it’s illegal growth, sale and usage (in a similar manner to the way that Prohibition encouraged the underground alcohol trade to flourish). The arguments used to justify this are usually the same…
It’s a gateway to harder stuff
The most common is that it’s a ‘gateway drug’ that frequently makes users more desensitised to narcotics in general and therefore more likely to move on to harder, more dangerous substances. This is an argument that has little evidence to back it up – in fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances”.
It causes dependence
Then there are the arguments that it’s addictive – which has been disproven time-and-time again (alcohol, in fact, has been shown to cause dependency far more frequently amongst users) – and that it’s legalisation would inspire many new smokers instead of making life easier for existing ones. Anyone who believes this last point would do well to look at the impact decriminalisation had in Colorado: after the drug was legalised, teenage cannabis usage significantly lessened.
It makes people lazy
For some people, cannabis can contribute to a lack of motivation. In its recreational form, particularly, it is often claimed to make users more content with simply doing nothing. But the idea that its only effect is to dull the mind and lessen one’s ambition is plain misleading. There are huge numbers of well-known high-achievers who are ardent cannabis-advocates. You’ll probably have heard of a few of them.
Plenty of leading figures in the business world are greatly supportive of cannabis – including Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs. Then (of course) there are numerous creatives and media figures who love it, from Jon Stewart to Rihanna. Carl Sagan, too, was a major pothead. Even Barack Obama admitted to having smoked a lot of herb in his youth. It’s very clear from the staggering list of successful people who’ve admitted to using cannabis that the impacts of the plant has more to do with the user than the substance itself.
Smoking is unhealthy
The final argument that’s relevant to this article is that smoking is just plain bad. Bad for the individual and bad for those around them. This one’s tough to argue against – in general, smoke is not good for those who inhale it (though cannabis certainly isn’t as dangerous as tobacco). There are arguments that the anti-inflammatory properties of cannabis do lessen the harmful impact upon the lungs – and it’s also true that there is no correlation between consumption of the herb and incidences of lung cancer.
However, there are multiple ways to ingest the plant and its various healthy components nowadays, from vaporisers to pills to sprayable oils – all of which eliminate any negative health impacts you might experience from smoking.
What are the health benefits?
It’s been tough for medical science to get a firm grip on cannabis. In the US, for example, the DEA has (until 2016) held the sole right to grow and supply the plant for research purposes – and reportedly did it all from a farm at the University of Mississippi whose output was extraordinarily terrible. Whilst this is changing now, the obstruction that cannabis research has faced in the past does mean that it’s study is still in its infancy compared to many other areas of medical research.
That said, the studies done so far have turned out incredibly-positive results! It’s a complex drug with hundreds of active components, so there’s likely still plenty more to discover, but there’s pretty much no bad news at present. Let’s delve into some of their findings and turn the narrative on its head a little…
THC vs CBD
The most well-known active components of cannabis are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). It’s a distinction you may be familiar with – and an important one when it comes to fully-understanding this complex drug.
THC is the main psychoactive component of cannabis, and is known for the “high” than people often experience when using the herb. It can produce a wide variety of differing effects in consumers, including euphoria, increased creativity and altered sensory perceptions. On the less-enjoyable end of the spectrum it can also cause paranoia, anxiety and physical symptoms like dizziness and dry-mouth.
When consuming cannabis in its raw form these effects are usually tempered, however, by the presence of CBD. You’ve probably heard the name, as it’s currently taking the medical world by storm. It can be extracted from both cannabis and hemp (a variety of the plant that contains almost no THC at all – less than 0.3%) and is commonly sold in the form of oils, gummies, tinctures and supplements.
The relaxing, pain-busting properties of CBD are becoming better-understood all the time, and it’s the major component of the plant that is currently being used in medical research. We’ll be examining some of the medical benefits below.
The benefits of medical cannabis for pain
Historically, there is all manner of anecdotal evidence that cannabis is a great weapon against pain. For example, in the Greco-Roman period between around the years 450-200 BC, cannabis was often prescribed for sufferers of toothaches and earaches. Additionally, the Chinese physician Hu’a Tuo would use cannabis as an analgesic to anesthetise patients prior to surgery. Evidently, there is a correlation between using the drug and feeling less pain.
It’s a correlation that science is catching on to. Research conducted in the past couple of decades has shown that many of the peripheral nerves that detect pain in the human body also contain numerous receptors that cannabinoids can link to; essentially providing a numbing effect against painful stimuli. The issue is that, whilst a huge amount of medical research is conducted in the United States, cannabis is still illegal on a federal level.
What are the implications of this? Well, whilst in many states somebody can simply walk into a dispensary and leave with cannabis with no issues, scientific research institutions – as federal bodies – can’t obtain the plant quite so easily. Either they can source the drug from the aforementioned farm owned by the University of Mississippi, or they have to ask patients to acquire it themselves.
This makes it harder to conduct thorough research in the USA, but there are still some solid findings that have emerged across the world…
Cannabis against cancer pain
Researchers in Israel, for example, discovered that cannabis has a significant impact upon the pain suffered by cancer patients, with over half of 1200 patients reporting that it had provided substantial relief after six months of regular usage. Many patients who were previously dependent on opioids to manage their symptoms also found they no longer needed them.
There are a number of cancer-fighting qualities that cannabis is believed to have, in fact. Cannabinoids have been shown to be able to do a few things:
- They can kill cells (this sounds bad, but the implications for cancer research are actually great).
- Prevent cell division (the spread of cancer is caused by cells dividing uncontrollably and often rapidly).
- Stop new blood vessels developing (which again, has positive implications in the battle against cancer).
The research hasn’t yet taken us much further, and some of these attributes can also work negatively against us when it comes to cancer development. However, as of yet, the results are very promising and we’re pretty certain there’ll be some interesting and exciting discoveries in this area in the near future.
Cannabis against chronic nerve pain
German researchers found, when examining a study group of 1700 people with chronic nerve pain, that cannabis caused a significant increase in the number of them who felt at least a 50% decrease in their painful symptoms. There were some downsides that they reported, too – use of cannabis reportedly also caused an increase in drowsiness, dizziness and confusion in certain patients.
These are commonly-touted ‘symptoms’ of cannabis, often raised by those who are against the drug. Whilst there’s plenty of evidence showing the plant can cause such issues, the truth is that these issues are only really present within certain strains of cannabis. We’ll examine the distinction between different forms of cannabis and their effects a little more later, but for now – don’t let it sway your opinion too much.
Cannabis against migraines
The European Academy of Neurology found that cannabis eased reported pain amongst migraine sufferers by up to 40% in some cases. Even patients who suffered from cluster headaches reported a positive impact, though this only seemed to be amongst patients who also had a childhood history of migraines.
Additionally, a 2016 study conducted by the University of Colorado found that over two-fifths of migraine sufferers who used cannabis daily reported that the number of migraine headaches they experienced per month was cut in half. That’s a significant statistic – it would easily be enough to get another drug approved by the FDA as a legal medicine, even one with a far greater number of side-effects compared to cannabis. This speaks positively towards the chances of federal legalisation in the USA in future, though it may still take some years to achieve.
Overall, it’s clear that cannabis is a very promising substance when it comes to treating pain. Millions of people across the world already use it in combating all manner of ailments, from Parkinson’s Disease to vertigo. Whilst these latter two examples haven’t been experimentally-proven to have real impact, there are huge numbers of people who testify to cannabis’ efficacy.
We’ll continue to touch upon its medicinal benefits throughout this guide, of course, but hopefully you’re already recognising the overwhelming potential of this little-understood drug.
Medical cannabis use against other ailments
Science is celebrating the gradual removal of the regulatory wall that has historically stood in the way of cannabis research. Already, alongside the aforementioned pain relief it can provide, studies have shown it can have a positive impact on many conditions from glaucoma to various types of inflammation.
Researchers are gaining an ever-stronger knowledge of how the major components of cannabis serve to alleviate different conditions – as well as balancing the negative side-effects that are sometimes reported with certain cannabis-derived drugs.
Finding a balance
For example, two drugs – Marinol and Sativex, have similar medical effects. However, the THC content in Marinol has been known to also induce side-effects such as paranoia. Sativex, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to cause such symptoms, which is believed to be down to it’s inclusion of CBD. This balances out the negative effects of the THC and makes for a far smoother medicinal experience for its users.
The two main compounds of cannabis work in a harmony together, both medically and recreationally. Science is beginning to figure out how best to harness this relationship – it’s been very successful so far, considering how little research has been historically permitted on the subject, and this means it’s a very exciting time to be working in the field.
We don’t want to linger too much on many of the reported benefits of cannabis because there’s still a lack of research to support many of the claims that are made. However, simply based on anecdotal testimony from countless users, it’s incredibly likely that the next couple of decades will uncover a huge amount of evidence that it can be used to effectively treat a huge number of illnesses, from the physical to the mental.
Cannabis against anxiety and depression
When it comes to anecdotal evidence, I can offer my own two cents on the matter. Not too long ago I suffered an extended bout of fairly severe anxiety that was often crippling in day-to-day life, and decided to purchase a CBD-infused oil that was designed to be sprayed underneath the tongue a couple of times a day. Now, I’d heard it was a great tool against mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, but I wasn’t sure if the hype was justified.
Turns out, it really was. The impact upon my mental health was resoundingly positive, and I don’t believe that this can simply have been due to a placebo effect. Where a near-constant background buzz of anxiety had been present before incorporating CBD into my routine, once I began taking the remedy I found that it simply… disappeared. Really – such a simple addition to my daily life practically defeated something that was causing me great difficulty.
Just to clarify – this was the product I used. It’s not a particularly expensive option, and its CBD content is comparatively low compared to certain other products, but it’s effects were definitely noticeable and didn’t seem to decrease even with regular usage.
This example may not be as weighty as a scientific study, but hopefully it proves that the information in this article isn’t simply hearsay. We’re sure that the science will catch up and provide solid evidence that claims such as mine are founded in reality.
Benefits of recreational cannabis
Within modern society, before the medicinal cannabis revolution began the plant was mainly used as a recreational substance – at least in the eyes of the public. Recreational drugs have been used for millennia, and cannabis has been an extremely popular choice amongst them for an incredibly long time. Users frequently report that the ‘high’ delivered by the herb is simply a lot of fun. Let’s take a closer look at the reported effects of recreational cannabis.
Indica vs. Sativa
This is a common distinction made by cannabis users to differentiate between two broad categories of effects that different strains of the plant cause. Indica-dominant strains are said to be much more relaxing, whilst those of the sativa-dominant variety are believed to be more stimulating and euphoric. Often, users who find that cannabis causes them to feel paranoid or agitated are advised to simply try a different strain with a higher indica content.
Similarly, those who find themselves glued to the couch and unable to motivate themselves to do anything other than eat Pringles and watch several seasons of Bojack Horseman back-to-back are often directed to strains with a balance in favour of sativa.
The truth of the matter is that this simple one-versus-the-other distinction doesn’t capture the complexity of cannabis’ chemical makeup. As mentioned before, there are hundreds of different compounds that the plant contains, and those are only the ones we know about so far. It’s clear that differing strains do produce differing effects, and certain people enjoy certain varieties more than others, but research on the herb hasn’t yet reached a point at which it can safely define the distinctions between them.
The strength of recreational cannabis
A 2018 article by The Guardian noted that, over the eleven years preceding it’s publication, the strength of cannabis in Europe had more than doubled. Whilst the average batch of the drug in it’s dried plant form contained around 5% THC in 2006, by 2016 this had risen to around 10%. Similarly, the strength of cannabis resin (a derivative of the plant that offers a higher level of potency than its raw form) had increased from 10% to 17% between 2011 and 2016.
This rise has not been reflected when it comes to CBD content, which you may recall helps to offset some of the negative side-effects of THC. As a result, the increased strength of much of the cannabis grown and bought in Europe has become less safe and more likely to induce some of the rare, extreme side-effects of the drug such as psychosis.
It still isn’t anywhere near as dangerous as alcohol, of course; the number of users who report extreme side-effects are very low, and those who do have negative experiences with the drug only tend to report them during the high itself rather than after the effects have worn off. Still, it’s very good to be aware of; despite recreational cannabis still being illegal in much of Europe, it’s rather easy to acquire, and walking through areas such as East London makes that very clear.
It’s always a risk to purchase illegal drugs – even if it’s a very safe substance like cannabis, you can’t be sure it isn’t cut with other things. Some street samples have been found to contain traces of much harder, more addictive narcotics such as cocaine or heroin. We can’t tell you what to do, but we’d definitely suggest that you practice caution if you decide to make such purchases.
Social benefits of recreational cannabis
Let’s move onto the social effect of cannabis. As many people’s university experiences will attest to, the herb is frequently used as a social lubricant in a similar vein to alcohol. There’s good reason for this: many users report feeling far more relaxed, happy and confident in themselves whilst under the influence. Cannabis highs also frequently alter the user’s perception of time, usually making it seem to pass at a slower rate.
It’s a substance that’s favoured by artists and creatives; theories suggest that cannabis forms neural pathways between different areas of the brain that aren’t naturally there when sober, which is why it’s often considered as a tool for creative expression. Some studies have even suggested that it can permanently rewire the brain – one of the main pieces of evidence that implies it could have wide-ranging benefits within the treatment of mental health issues.
At the more extreme end of the spectrum, cannabis can admittedly produce hallucinatory effects, although this is very uncommon when consumers smoke the herb, and is primarily experienced when it’s ingested in edible form (more on that later). When too much is consumed, users can sometimes feel as if they’re dying – this is a situation that paramedics are called out to deal with fairly frequently, and whilst the feelings may appear very real to the sufferer nobody has ever actually died from a cannabis overdose.
It’s also been shown that recreational cannabis use can be harmful to users under 25, with a risk of stunting brain development. Once you’re past that age, however, the negative effects upon the mind are so far believed to be negligible.
Compared to alcohol, which is commonly associated with reckless behaviour, poor social judgement and heightened aggression, cannabis has far fewer negative effects upon social behaviour. Whilst it occasionally does produce such reactions, it’s far more infrequent than with drinking. As a result, more and more people are opting for the herb as their social lubricant of choice.
How can cannabis be consumed?
Just as the effects of cannabis are diverse and complex, so are the many methods of delivering the active compounds to the body in order to experience their full effects. Here, we’ll break down a few of the common techniques amongst users for consuming the herb.
We’re likely all familiar with the ‘stoner’ stereotype – the long-haired, spaced out hippy with a bong and a rastacap blowing immense clouds of smoke out with a murmur of “far out, man”. Smoking cannabis is the most common way of ingesting it, at least recreationally. The effects are felt very quickly, and for a long time it was difficult to reaily-access other methods of consumption.
Recreational users often light up ‘joints’ (roll-ups containing nothing but cannabis), ‘spliffs’ (which are similar to joints, except the cannabis is usually mixed with another substance such as tobacco) and ‘blunts’ (which contain only cannabis, but use cigar papers to roll for what is believed to be a more potent smoking experience).
Smoking devices such as bongs and pipes are also popular, too – the former is a favourite due to cooling the smoke before it enters the lungs, making the experience much smoother for the user. Perhaps unexpectedly, the smoke from cannabis actually acts as a bronchodilator due to the presence of compounds like Pinene – which means that it may actually help sufferers of conditions like asthma breathe more effectively (this isn’t proven, however, so take it with a pinch of salt).
It’s likely that smoking – partly due to how easy it is for most people, along with how quickly the effect of the active compounds can be felt – will remain the most popular delivery method for the time being; until technology and legislation catches up and makes healthier techniques available to everyone, at least.
As previously-mentioned, cannabis can also be consumed in edible form – a method that (when it comes to strains that contain THC) usually delivers much more potent effects than simply lighting up. It usually takes a lot longer for the impact to be felt, but it’s almost always more powerful when it hits.
Edible products are rather difficult to make from raw cannabis, requiring that the plant be heated to a certain temperature to ‘activate’ the THC; if this isn’t done, it can’t bind properly with the cannabinoid receptors in the body. This is why you won’t get high – or likely anything other than queasy – from munching on a cannabis leaf as if it’s a it’s a sprig of mint. This, combined with the longer-lasting, more intense effects of the finished edible products, means that eating cannabis products isn’t as popular as smoking – at least in countries where the plant is still illegal.
With the rise of the medicinal cannabis industry, though, this may be set to change. Where consumers used to either have to buy edible products from drug dealers or make them at home, there are now diverse and delicious ranges of cannabis-containing foods that can offer all the benefits – both medicinal and recreational – of smoking or vaping whilst also filling consumer’s stomachs to boot.
In the UK, this is relegated to products that only contain CBD, but with many experts estimating that recreational cannabis will be legalised in the country within the next decade, this may be set to change.
With the rise of the medicinal cannabis industry, however, all manner of innovative delivery techniques are emerging to fill the diverse market. Not everybody enjoys the experience of smoking, after all – and it’s certainly one of the least-healthy ways of consuming the drug. With the rise of vaporisers (‘vapes’ for short) a huge industry has grown around THC or CBD-containing oils that can be ‘smoked’ without the harmful effects of, well, actual smoke.
Tinctures are also growing increasingly-popular. Usually applied underneath the tongue, they’re often considered a halfway house between the effects of smoking and eating the plant. They’re usually about as effective as edibles but it takes less time to feel an impact – around 15 minutes; similarly to smoking. It’s also easier to regulate how much you consume by using eye-dropper measurements – eliminating one of the main downsides of edible products.
Finally, we have topical delivery methods – most popular amongst people who experience chronic pain or inflammation. There are a wide range of cannabis-containing products that can be applied to the skin. They won’t get you high, but they can ease painful symptoms very effectively. Sufferers of arthritis, for example, may find that applying topical cream to their afflicted joints (in this case referring to bones) can clear up the symptoms within minutes. They usually need regular reapplication, but they’re generally very effective
Overall, accessing the medicinal and recreational benefits of cannabis works differently from person-to-person. The huge market of diverse products on offer is only set to grow as the industry does, so it’s worth learning which delivery method suits you the most.
Safest dry herb vaporizer
As a healthy method for consuming cannabis, vaporizers are becoming more and more popular in the UK. Dry herb vaporizers should be differentiated from e-cigs, which use oil canisters to deliver the active compounds to the body. Dry herb varieties instead vaporize… well, dry herb. Considering they eliminate the negative effects of smoking and are much more flexible, speedy and easy-to-use than oil-based vapes, they’re the comprehensive method of delivery that we’d recommend.
DRAY Dry Herb Vaporizer
If you’re eager to get on this train, you’ll want to ensure you find a decent product that is both safe and effective. Fortunately, we’ve done some research on the matter and found that perhaps the safest, most efficient and most affordable option on the market is the DRAY Dry Herb Vaporizer. Not only is it an incredibly durable device, it’s perfect for vaping beginners. The temperature can be adjusted in increments of 1°F between 385°F to 430°F. This offers a great deal of precise customisation, allowing anybody to find the smoothest and most enjoyable setting for them.
It also boasts a very long-lasting battery that can keep your device going for up to 12 hours. It’s simple and stylish Organic LED screen makes it incredibly easy to keep track of battery life and temperature, and the elegant design makes it aesthetically appealing to boot. If you’re looking for a beginner vape, we fully-recommend this accessible and well-priced device.
If the aforementioned product from DRAY doesn’t catch your eye, take a look at the Dynavap family of devices – we’ve reviewed them here, so take a look to see if they’re more suited to your needs! We’ve also reviewed the Arizer Solo 2 and found it to be a very impressive option for home vaping. If you’re still stumped, however, you can always check out our reviews of a number of other great devices here – hopefully you can find the perfect dry herb vape for you.
It would be impossible to fully round up all of the facts and figures on cannabis – both medicinal and recreational – in one article. Not only is there a huge amount of research still to be conducted on the topic, it’s also an incredibly complex subject. However, it’s an incredibly exciting time for medical science; the multitude of benefits provided by this wonder plant are finally being recognised, and we’ve only really begun to scratch the surface.
The days of cannabis being dismissed as a social evil or a drug for losers are swiftly being left in the dust. Not only is it more acceptable to enjoy the plant as a recreational substance than it’s ever been, the stigma surrounding it is dropping away and opening the door to all manner of new research projects. In just the past ten years, the advancements made in the field have been huge. Who knows what other discoveries the future holds?