In a recent interview with FiveThirtyEight, National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow said there’s no evidence that occasional marijuana use is harmful to adults.
“There’s no evidence to my knowledge that occasional [adult] marijuana use has harmful effects. I don’t know of any scientific evidence of that,” Volkow said.
Many government agencies, including NIDA, have spent more than $1 billion insisting that cannabis is a harmful substance. But marijuana use has never been linked to higher overall mortality the way cigarettes and alcohol have. Additionally, numerous studies are demonstrating the health benefits of cannabis.
Recent epidemiological and animal studies show that cannabinoids demonstrate positive results for treating cancer and neurological decline, among other diseases. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a cannabis-based drug to treat two epilepsy syndromes – Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome – in people two years of age or older. Some studies, seeking to prove the harmful effects of cannabis, have instead discovered evidence of its benefits. A 2016 study that followed a group of New Zealand adults for 20 years found that cannabis use was associated with better cholesterol levels, lower BMI, and reduced waist circumference. A 2020 study on cannabis use among people over 60 found that they exercised more often and had a significantly lower BMI than non-users.
“BMI is lower in marijuana users, and that was very surprising, and yet we know that high BMI, particularly the older you get, can have negative effects,” Volkow said. “This is why we need to study it.”
Volkow emphasized that she remains concerned about use by young people and said that long-term daily consumption of high-THC products, popular at legal dispensaries, “can have harmful effects even on the adult brain.” Volkow conceded that for most Americans, who only use cannabis occasionally and in moderate doses, it wasn’t clear that there were any adverse effects.
All of this is not to say that the NIDA director supports marijuana commercialization efforts. Volkow has an even-keeled approach to marijuana, pointing out potential dangers for adolescents and pregnant women. And she has admitted that her concerns about the impact of state-level reforms haven’t always come to fruition. On a recent podcast appearance, she acknowledged that marijuana legalization has not led to increased youth use and addressed the therapeutic potential of some psychedelics previously designated as “dangerous” under federal law.
Importantly, Volkow has also emphasized the need to address substance misuse through a public health lens instead of subjecting people to criminalization.
“When we penalize people who use drugs because of an addiction, we suggest that their use is a character flaw rather than a medical condition,” said Volkow. “And when we incarcerate addicted individuals, we decrease their access to treatment and exacerbate the personal and societal consequences of their substance use.”
Volkow believes decriminalization, coupled with increased treatment, is a superior alternative to incarcerating people over drugs. She also pointed the finger at government responsibility for creating obstacles to confronting the country’s drug crisis by perpetuating these outmoded stigmas. Volkow also stated that it’s clear that the criminalization of drugs has disproportionately impacted communities of color.
Volkow also said that scientists should be allowed to investigate products from state-legal dispensaries instead of using only government-grown plants for marijuana research. In a separate report submitted to congressional lawmakers, NIDA emphasized that having controlled substances like cannabis listed as Schedule I drug restricts research into their potential risks and benefits. The report continued to say that blocking scientists from studying the cannabinoid products available to the public impedes research to the degree that it creates a public health concern.
But it’s encouraging for advocates and cannabis consumers to see a federal health official rely on the science and acknowledge that no evidence exists demonstrating serious harms for adults who occasionally take a hit from the dab rig here and there. There is a robust body of evidence that cannabis can provide health benefits. Not surprising, given that marijuana is one of the world’s oldest medicines.