Many people believe marijuana will likely be fully legal within the United States within the next five to ten years, depending on who you ask. The popular substance has been used by humans recreationally for thousands of years, regardless of its legality as deemed by a governing entity. Its prohibition has been lifted in several states in the U.S., seeing about 20 percent of Americans now living in states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
But, as with any legal substance within a country, it benefits the general public to have scientific research conducted to learn the various health effects that its use may cause. Unfortunately, because of the stigma surrounding the plant and its severe drug classification by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), research surrounding marijuana is difficult to pursue and even harder to fund--ultimately leading to people using the drug without truly knowing what to expect health wise.
Here are four big mysteries still surrounding marijuana today:
What’s actually in the plant?
If we shrunk ourselves down to atom-sized human beings and dove into a bud of the marijuana plant, we’d find at least 400 different chemical compounds that exist within it. 60 of these compounds are cannabinoids, meaning they interact with a specific part of the human brain, affecting everything from appetite to memory to mood to consciousness.
Not only do we not fully understand this part of the human brain just yet, we’ve yet to fully analyze all of the compounds present in marijuana, meaning we have some idea of how it affects us, but are far from solving the entire puzzle.
"We know a lot about THC and we're starting to learn about CBD. Out of about 400 [compounds] we know a decent amount about two,” says Ryan Vandrey who studies marijuana as an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The long-term use effects of CBD vs. THC
To make things even more complicated, marijuana growers are churning out new strains of the plant every day, each one with a specific set of compounds and preferred uses.
Not to mention, its potency has gone way up since being legalized. Two decades ago, it would be considered “good weed” if the THC percentage was above 10 percent. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find strains of marijuana that regularly produce anywhere from 15 to over 30 percent THC.
Each time a grower makes a small change to a strain, THC and CBD levels will shift accordingly. And with THC percentages projected to continue increasing, researchers are now faced with questions such as ‘what happens when THC concentration “goes up to 40, 50, 60 percent?”’
Some are worried due to research showing changes in the brains of heavy users.
Zero scientific studies regarding sativa vs. indica strains
Much of the what the marijuana community regards as common knowledge about the substance hasn’t been reaffirmed by any sort of scientific evidence.
For example, most marijuana enthusiasts know that there are two general categories that a strain of weed falls into: sativa or indica. Sativas are known for producing energetic highs, while indicas are known to give you heavy body highs that promote relaxation. Yet, there doesn’t exist a single study saying either of these claims are true. The community simply knows this to be the case simply through their own experiences.
In order to establish a fully legal market, a more complete understanding of the substance and its effects needs to be defined. When we look at the alcohol market, we’re flooded with information such as the differences between a bottle of wine, a bottle of hard liquor, a session beer with low ABV and high ABV beers like IPAs.
We have very little information regarding the different strains, concentrations and different effects marijuana has depending on the way you ingest it into your body.
The effects of recreational use
Long-term studies that look at the effects of long-term usage are hard to come by, meaning information regarding marijuana’s effects for people who smoke every day versus those who smoke once a day or even once a week is little to none.
However, there are researchers out there who are just starting to embark on this mission. One study is currently tracking a group of medical marijuana users over a period of time longer than a year to analyze any and all health changes. Particularly, they are hoping to find any changes to sleep patterns, cognitive functionality, and overall quality of life.
The study is also targeting a much older demographic than is typically seen--adults with an average age of around 48. This is to hopefully shed light on how marijuana changes the health of adults and people who have surely stopped growing in almost every aspect.
Recreationally speaking, there is a bit of information regarding heavy or chronic users. There have been links to depression, problems sleeping, decreased emotional control and decreased memory functioning. However, these changes are predominantly seen in users who have consumed the substance since before the ages of 16 or 17.
Where are we now?
While we currently have studies looking into some of the most important questions regarding marijuana consumption, our understanding of the plant is far from being complete. Some long-term studies will not be able to report their findings until they are finished collecting data at least 10 years from now.
Should marijuana become legal on a big-scale, as in nation-wide, we will undoubtedly start seeing more research being conducted on the substance and will be able to fully benefit from its medicinal properties, as well as put out the necessary information regarding its long-term and recreational effects.
For the moment, we just have to wait and see.