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Int J Drug Policy. 2017 Apr;42:39-49. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.01.007. Epub 2017 Feb 8.

Building smart cannabis policy from the science up.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, United States. Electronic address:
National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, United States.


Social attitudes and cultural norms around the issue of substance abuse are shifting rapidly around the world, leading to complex and unpredictable consequences. On the positive side, efforts to more intensely disseminate the scientific evidence for the many connections between chronic substance use and the emergence of measurable and discrete brain dysfunctions, has ushered in an evolving climate of acceptance and a new era of improved access to more effective interventions, at least in the United States. On the negative side, there has been a steady erosion in the public perception of the harms associated with the use of popular drugs, especially cannabis. This worrisome trend has sprouted at the convergence of several forces that have combined, more or less fortuitously, to effectively change long-standing policies away from prohibition and toward decriminalization or legalization. These forces include the outsized popularity of the cannabis plant among recreational users, the unflagging campaign by corporate lobbyists and patient advocates to mainstream its medicinal use, and the honest realization in some quarters of the deleterious impact of the drug war and its draconian cannabis laws, in particular, on society's most vulnerable populations. Updating drug policies is a desirable goal, and significant changes may indeed be warranted. However, there is a real concern when policy changes are hurriedly implemented without the required input from the medical, scientific, or policy research communities. Regardless of how well intentioned, such initiatives are bound to magnify the potential for unintended adverse consequences in the form of far ranging health and social costs. To minimize this risk, science must be front and center in this important policy debate. Here, we review the state of the science on cannabis and cannabinoid health effects, both adverse and therapeutic. We focus on the prevalence of use in different populations, the mechanisms by which cannabis exerts its effects (i.e., via the endocannabinoid system), and the double-edged potential of this system to inspire new medications, on one hand, and to cause short and long term harmful effects on the other. By providing knowledge of cannabis' broad ranging effects, we hope to enable better decision making regarding cannabis legislation and policy implementation.


Cannabis effects; Cannabis policy; Cannabis science; Medicinal cannabis

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