Human studies of cannabinoids and medicinal cannabis

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2005:(168):719-56. doi: 10.1007/3-540-26573-2_25.


Cannabis has been known as a medicine for several thousand years across many cultures. It reached a position of prominence within Western medicine in the nineteenth century but became mired in disrepute and legal controls early in the twentieth century. Despite unremitting world-wide suppression, recreational cannabis exploded into popular culture in the 1960s and has remained easily obtainable on the black market in most countries ever since. This ready availability has allowed many thousands of patients to rediscover the apparent power of the drug to alleviate symptoms of some of the most cruel and refractory diseases known to humankind. Pioneering clinical research in the last quarter of the twentieth century has given some support to these anecdotal reports, but the methodological challenges to human research involving a pariah drug are formidable. Studies have tended to be small, imperfectly controlled, and have often incorporated unsatisfactory synthetic cannabinoid analogues or smoked herbal material of uncertain composition and irregular bioavailability. As a result, the scientific evaluation of medicinal cannabis in humans is still in its infancy. New possibilities in human research have been opened up by the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, a rapidly expanding knowledge of cannabinoid pharmacology, and a more sympathetic political environment in several countries. More and more scientists and clinicians are becoming interested in exploring the potential of cannabis-based medicines. Future targets will extend beyond symptom relief into disease modification, and already cannabinoids seem to offer particular promise in the treatment of certain inflammatory and neurodegenerative conditions. This chapter will begin with an outline of the development and current status of legal controls pertaining to cannabis, following which the existing human research will be reviewed. Some key safety issues will then be considered, and the chapter will conclude with some suggestions as to future directions for human research.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Appetite / drug effects
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology
  • Cannabinoids / therapeutic use*
  • Cannabis
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Epilepsy / drug therapy
  • Glaucoma / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Abuse / etiology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / drug therapy
  • Nausea / prevention & control
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Neuroprotective Agents / pharmacology
  • Pain / drug therapy
  • Phytotherapy*
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / drug therapy
  • Vomiting / prevention & control


  • Cannabinoids
  • Neuroprotective Agents