Those straightforward questions are embedded in a web of social concerns, most of which lie outside the scope of this report. Controversies concerning the nonmedical use of marijuana spill over into the medical marijuana debate and obscure the real state of scientific knowledge. In contrast with the many disagreements bearing on social issues, the study team found substantial consensus among experts in the relevant disciplines on the scientific evidence about potential medical uses of marijuana.
This report summarizes and analyzes what is known about the medical use of marijuana; it emphasizes evidence-based medicine (derived from knowledge and experience informed by rigorous scientific analysis), as opposed to belief-based medicine (derived from judgment, intuition, and beliefs untested by rigorous science).
Throughout this report, marijuana refers to unpurified plant substances, including leaves or flower tops whether consumed by ingestion or smoking. References to the "effects of marijuana" should be understood to include the composite effects of its various components; that is, the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, are included among its effects, but not all the effects of marijuana are necessarily due to THC. Cannabinoids are the group of compounds related to THC, whether found in the marijuana plant, in animals, or synthesized in chemistry laboratories.
Three focal concerns in evaluating the medical use of marijuana are:
1. Evaluation of the effects of isolated cannabinoids;
2. Evaluation of the risks associated with the medical use of marijuana; and
3. Evaluation of the use of smoked marijuana.
Much has been learned since the 1982 IOM report Marijuana and Health. Although it was clear then that most of the effects of marijuana were due to its actions on the brain, there was little information about how THC acted on brain cells (neurons), which cells were affected by THC, or even what general areas of the brain were most affected by THC. In addition, too little was known about cannabinoid physiology to offer any scientific insights into the harmful or therapeutic effects of marijuana. That all changed with the identification and characterization of cannabinoid receptors in the 1980s and 1990s. During the past 16 years, science has advanced greatly and can tell us much more about the potential medical benefits of cannabinoids.