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Making sense of the science: A simple guide to doing medicinal cannabis research

by | Dec 8, 2020

Most people start their medicinal cannabis research journey with a simple Google search.

“Can medicinal cannabis help with X?”

It’s a good place to begin.

But how do you navigate the endless search results — articles, blog posts, scientific papers, reviews — that Google serves up?

How do you tell the difference between a clickbait headline and meaningful information?

If you’re wanting to make evidence-based decisions around using medicinal cannabis, it’s important to know how to read the scientific research.

Cannabis has attracted a lot of attention from the scientific community in recent years.

But some of the research papers are more robust and reliable than others.

You want to find the research that’s going to help you make informed healthcare decisions, both for you and your loved ones.

This guide to doing medicinal cannabis research will help you do that.


Why you should do your own cannabis research

We recommend that patients and caregivers do their own medicinal cannabis research for several reasons.

Information is power and we’re all for patients taking control of their healthcare.

You’ve probably heard a lot about the medicinal potential of cannabis.

Reading up on the science of cannabis can help you decide if it’s something you’d like to try yourself and if it’s safe and effective.

Doing your own research can also lead to more constructive conversations with your doctor.

In a world where anyone can make misleading claims about cannabis on the internet, research helps you to separate fact from fiction.

Medicinal cannabis is showing a lot of promise in healthcare, but it’s not a miracle drug and most of the research is far from conclusive.

Exploring the scientific literature can be confusing and overwhelming at first, but it will help you gain a deeper understanding of how cannabis might help in the treatment of your health condition.

Is medicinal cannabis right for you?
Find information specific to your health condition or symptoms.


How to find reliable medical cannabis research

Start with “doctor Google”

It’s perfectly fine to start your cannabis with a Google search.

Just be aware that often the top results will be search engine-optimised blog posts or news articles, rather than research papers.

Blog posts and articles can be great for providing simplified overviews of the research, but sometimes they misrepresent the findings.

You should always try and find the original sources of information, which are usually linked to in the blog post or listed in a references section at the bottom of the page.

If you want to narrow down your Google search to research papers, try searching “cannabis and [medical condition] study”.


Try Google Scholar

Google Scholar

Google Scholar is a search engine for “scholarly” literature, including scientific research.

It will provide you with more targeted results than a standard Google search.


Search PubMed


PubMed is a search engine for scientific research with a mission to improve health “globally and personally”.

It’s a fantastic resource for finding reliable and relevant research.

The great thing about PubMed is that studies are vetted by humans for scholarly and quality criteria before being added to the database.


How to read a scientific paper

Research papers are written by scientists for scientists, which is to say they’re not easy to understand.

The first thing you should know is you don’t have to read the whole paper to get value from it.

If you know what to look for, you can quickly find out if a study is going to be useful to you or not.

The first thing you need to know is what kind of study it is.


The different types of studies

The three main types of studies you’ll come across are:

  • Preclinical tests: These are studies done using animal subjects, usually lab rats or mice. All new medicines have to go through a preclinical phase to show that they’re safe and effective to progress to clinical studies. A lot of cannabis research is preclinical. The findings can be interesting, but you shouldn’t be basing healthcare decisions on them.
  • Clinical studies: These are studies done with human subjects. That means their findings should be more reliable, but there are different levels to clinical studies which we’ll go into below. Doctors rely on clinical research to inform their decision-making.
  • Clinical reviews: Reviews are in-depth analyses of the most up-to-date research on a given topic. They review both preclinical and clinical studies and typically draw conclusions from a large body of research. Reviews are great for getting a comprehensive overview of the latest science.
  • Case reports: Occasionally, you might come across case reports, which are detailed accounts of the symptoms, signs, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up of an individual patients, usually if their situation is unusual or new. The idea is that if it worked for one person, it might work for others. However, there are obvious limitations to one-person studies.


Things to look for

Once you find a study that seems relevant to you and your health condition of symptoms, there are a few things you should look for to determine the validity of the findings.

  • Who did the study: It’s important to know who’s behind the research. Did a media organisation get readers to fill in an online study and report the findings as “news”? Did a pharmaceutical company fund research in their own interest. Did a reputable educational or research instiution conduct a robust scientific study?
  • Sample size: This means how many people took part in the study. If the sample size is small (say, less than 30 people), it limits the reliability of the study. However, researchers can find it difficult to get funding for large sample sizes, so it’s a bit of a catch-22. A larger sample size usually means the results are more valid.
  • Methodology: This might be the most important thing to look at. Some studies are simply self-reported surveys, which isn’t the most scientific of methodologies. The results can be interesting, but aren’t particularly robust. You want to look for randomised control trials. That means there are two groups of subjects. One group receives the medicine that’s being studied and the other receives a placebo or conventional treatment (control). A double-blind placebo-controlled study is often considered the “gold standard”. That means the subject and testers don’t know who’s receiving the drug or placebo, which helps to minimise bias.

If you want to quickly find this information, you can open a document on your computer, hold control+F (command+F on Mac) to search for terms like “sample”, “blind”, “control”, “placebo”.


Reading the paper

There are no hard and fast rules for how to read a scientific paper. But here are a few tips for quickly extracting the most important and relevant information from studies.

  • Skim: Start by doing a quick once-over of the study. Search for the sample size and methodology (see above) and get a feel for what the research is about.
  • Introduction: Abstracts are good for an overview of the study, introductions are better. The last paragraph of the introduction often summarises the purpose of the study.
  • Conclusion: You can then choose to skip all of the technical stuff and jump to the conclusion and read an overview of the findings.
  • Discussion: Then, if the findings are especially interesting or relevant for you, you can rewind and read the discussion for a deeper understanding of the research.


Make evidence-based healthcare decisions

Doing your own research empowers you to make evidence-based healthcare decisions.

As cannabis becomes a more mainstream medicine, it’s important to be wary of healthcare claims.

Blogs, social media posts, and news articles can be good starting points for your research, but you should always seek out validated sources of information.

That way you can be confident in talking to your doctor about medicinal cannabis and potentially using it in the treatment or management of your health condition.

Ora Pharm has set up Ora Support to help patients, caregivers and doctors quickly and easily access the best medicinal cannabis research.

It’s a free resource to support you.

Is medicinal cannabis right for you?
Find information specific to your health condition or symptoms.

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