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Marijuana plants grow in pots. (Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons/Brett Levin)

For years, drug experts have issued warnings about marijuana, but an authoritative report issued today acknowledges its potential benefits – and says one of the biggest risks is not knowing more about marijuana’s health effects.

The report, issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, says the scarcity of research is “a significant public health concern for vulnerable populations such as adolescents and pregnant women.”

Sixteen experts in public health and related fields spent months reviewing thousands of studies that have been done to date, and cited evidence that marijuana and its cannabinoid spin-offs can alleviate chronic pain in adults. Short-term use can help alleviate muscle spasms related to multiple sclerosis, or the nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy.

On the flip side, the report confirms that driving and marijuana don’t mix, and that unintentional ingestion of the drug leads to overdoses in children.

There’s some evidence that smoking marijuana, also known as cannabis, can trigger a heart attack or respiratory problems. But so far, there’s no evidence of increased risk for the cancers associated with smoking tobacco, such as lung cancer.

The report confirmed that marijuana use can impair memory, attention and learning, and can increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses. And there’s evidence that using marijuana at a younger age increases the likelihood of abusing the drug, or getting into other drugs – including alcohol and tobacco.

The research review was undertaken to sort out marijuana facts from fiction – which is particularly important for states such as Washington, where medical and recreational pot use has been legalized. Seven other states plus the District of Columbia are in the same situation.

“For years, the landscape of marijuana use has been rapidly shifting as more and more states are legalizing cannabis for the treatment of medical conditions and recreational use,” committee chair Marie McCormick, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a news release. “This growing acceptance, accessibility and use of cannabis and its derivatives have raised important health concerns.”

The report recommends setting up a national cannabis research agenda with funding and support from public and private sources. Governmental agencies should establish quality standards for the research, expand access to research-grade marijuana and improve public health surveillance systems, the report says.

One big obstacle is that the Drug Enforcement Agency continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which means it’s not considered to have medical benefit. That puts tight limits on its availability for federally sanctioned research.

Marijuana possession and use is technically illegal under federal law, but current guidelines put a low priority on prosecution in states that have legalized it.

The issue of state vs. federal policies on pot came up this week during the Senate confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, but his testimony didn’t provide clear signals about future enforcement.

The full 378-page report is freely available online.The Washington State Department of Health was among the report’s sponsors.

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