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A quick search for “cannabis” in PubMed, a public database of medical papers, yields 15,901 published research papers. So, why do people say that there isn’t enough research to prove that cannabis is not harmful to health? Further, with so many different claims out there, how do you determine what claim is the truth? Learning how to sort through loads of information can take some practice. Here are five quick tips for evaluating cannabis research.

1. Look for top-notch sources

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Medical cannabis blogs and websites are popping up all over the place. Like a game of telephone, information echoes through multiple sources, sometimes getting distorted in the process.

To get around this problem, it’s important to find news sites and information sources that cite primary research. But, how do you tell if something counts as primary research? Here are the three main types of quality information:

  • Primary sources: The primary document from a study, piece of legislation, survey, etc.
  • Secondary source: Academic or expert sources that summarize primary research (like a review)
  • Tertiary source: Articles that summarize primary and secondary sources for a wider audience

Unfortunately, primary academic texts can be difficult to read. This is why secondary and tertiary resources are helpful when trying to understand a concept. However, it is ill-advised to trust a source that does not link or cite primary sources, especially for scientific, political, and legal information.

Websites typically list all citations at the end of an article or include hyperlinks to sources within the article itself.

2. Use research databases

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When searching for reputable information, simply typing something into Google can end in confusion and misinformation. This can be especially frustrating for patients and families trying to understand how cannabis may affect a specific medical condition.

An easy way to improve the quality of the information is to go right to the source. Public research databases house hundreds to thousands of published scientific papers. Some databases, like the Realm of Caring Research Library, feature full-length academic articles for free.

Other databases, like PubMed, allow you to browse between published abstracts for free, and may or may not feature free full-length articles. Here are three public libraries/databases for medical research:

3. Follow the pyramid

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Finding a study is one thing. The next step is figuring out what it’s worth. Not all studies are equal in quality. When it comes to cannabis, researchers are amassing quite a lot of promising pre-clinical evidence.

However, much of this early evidence has yet to be put to the rigorous test in human clinical trials. Fortunately, the research pyramid provides a good model to help sort out what is what. Here is a very generalized rating for simple scientific research:

  • Low-quality: Anecdotal, pre-clinical cell line studies, rodent studies, individual case studies
  • Medium-quality: Reviews of pre-clinical trials, observational studies, randomized clinical trials in humans
  • High-quality: Meta-analysis of clinical trials and longitudinal studies in humans (a review of all available studies)

Unfortunately, the medical cannabis world is missing much of the high-quality evidence that makes up the top of the pyramid. There are ample in-vitro (outside of the body), animal, case reports, and observational studies. There are even quite a few small scale trials.

However, reviews of multiple randomized clinical trials and long-term epidemiological studies are still lacking.

4. Contact reputable agencies

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Groups like Americans for Safe Access and Project CBD work to provide quality information on cannabis-based therapies. Both organizations have research pages, allowing interested patients, professionals, and the canna-curious to peruse quality health information on the sites.

Questions can be sent to Americans for Safe Access here, and Project CBD here.

Realm of Caring is a nonprofit foundation that helps medical cannabis patients and their families effectively use the herb to treat their conditions. The foundation provides consulting and cannabis education classes for patients.

It also works with doctors, scientists, and other medical professionals on research initiatives to further the understanding of the cannabis plant.

Those who live outside the state of Colorado can call into the Realm of Caring with medical cannabis questions. Those lucky enough to be in Colorado can make an in-person appointment or sign up for a cannabis education class.

5. Ask questions

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A critical mind is the best ally when trying to wade through information and claims about cannabis (or anything, really). For those that want to do diligence with their cannabis information, here are a few questions that may help you further evaluate your sources:

  • Who funded this research?
  • Has this been peer-reviewed before approval?
  • Is this a recognizable voice in the industry?
  • Are there criticisms or responses to this particular article?
  • When was this article published?

New cannabis research is published every year. Now that the herb is taking the main stage, medical and scientific professionals around the globe are eager to study the plant. Yet, sadly to say, many researchers still face legal restrictions on what they can do with the herb.

In the US cannabis is a schedule 1 controlled substance, which makes the plant illegal to study without special permission, which does not come often.

All of the available pre-clinical, observational, anecdotal, and trial evidence strongly indicates that cannabis has immense therapeutic potential. The overwhelming anecdotal support and the large collection of pre-clinical information are more than enough evidence for many medical cannabis patients and enthusiasts.

However, scientists and scholars need legal access to the plant to encourage more advanced, high-quality studies.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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