Welcome to the next installment in the series of educational articles from technical writer Curt Robbins at Higher Learning LV and MJNews Network. This collection is intended for cannabis and hemp industry professionals who wish to gain a better understanding of the nuanced biochemistry of this special—and newly legal—herb.
This week readers learn about medical cannabis misinformation, a problem that has plagued the producers, processors, and consumers of the herb since the early 1900s. At the time, a wave of anti-narcotic legislation spurred by food and drug purity activism (a popular progressive movement after the turn of the century) was sweeping the state governments of the United States (led by, ironically, California in 1913).
The era, sometimes referred to as “reefer madness,” involved the first generation of American pot prohibitionists, a small cabal of powerful bureaucrats aligned with corporate barons, all motivated by the common goal of cultural and corporate protectionism and characterized by pronounced bigotry.
This first wave of marijuana misinformation managers—who carefully crafted urban legends regarding supposed harms delivered by the herb—operated in sharp contrast to the modern carpetbagging companies that also make false claims about the plant, only theirs proclaim inflated benefits in an effort to spur sales.
A study released in March 2021 investigated the validity of medical cannabis information commonly available via the internet. The research examined the occurrence of phrases such as “marijuana health” and “cannabis benefits” in the lay press, as located using the Google search engine and the marketing service Buzzsumo (a fee-based “bank of social engagement data”).
The study sorted the information sources and articles retrieved into 81 categories. It revealed that a staggering 80 percent of the information retrieved was false. In addition, the study’s authors deemed only five percent of it to be “true” and factual.
“Health claims were compared to…existing [clinical] trial evidence and categorized as not true, partly true, and true. Disagreements were resolved by discussion,” reported the study’s authors regarding their inclusion and evaluation methodology.
The researchers concluded that “the inadequacy of the current evidence enables the proliferation of untrue claims, which inform the current social discourse on the health benefits of cannabis” and warned that patients and wellness professionals “should be cautious consumers of health information on the internet given the current state of the evidence and proliferation of false claims.”
Non-Clinical Data Not Considered
It should be noted that this study compared the health claims that it found on the internet to “existing [clinical] trial evidence.” Much of the body of credible research regarding the medicinal efficacy of marijuana has been revealed not in clinical trials involving humans, but by animal studies (labelled in vivo). Other times, valid results are obtained from “test tube research” involving no living creatures (called in vitro studies).
Many clinical practitioners and scientists believe that the data revealed by research outside of human trials is of real value, although it is objectively less reliable and yields less practical or usable data than that provided by carefully executed clinical trials.
Expensive placebo-controlled double- or triple-blind human trials involving dozens or hundreds of carefully qualified test subjects are the gold standard for researchers in any area of medical science. However, the results of studies involving animals such as rodents often provide valuable insight into underlying biochemical mechanisms that are common to a range of mammals, beyond humans.
The 2021 study, however, strategically did not encompass non-clinical trial evidence, creating what could be argued to be a bias in its data capture methodology (and, by extension, its conclusions). If the study had limited research to peer-reviewed journals involving both clinical and non-clinical published results, a significantly larger percentage of the articles almost certainly would have been categorized as true, beyond the meager 4.9 percent reported.
Dealing with Misinformation
Misinformation and urban legend have plagued humans and their businesses since the dawn of organized societies. It’s no secret to consumers that, sometimes, companies and their marketing campaigns make claims that are based not in scientific research, but rather in the greed of their owners or investors.
The internet and social media are rife with urban legends spurred by arguably unethical marketing claims from hemp and cannabis companies throughout North America. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the issue of misinformation in the modern legal cannabis industry and its real impact on patients and lifestyle consumers.
Savvy entrepreneurs should obviously strive to ensure that their medical cannabis information sources are reputable. Many companies, including the author’s clients, refuse to develop content marketing materials—such as product descriptions, blog articles, white papers, or other promotional assets—that cite sources outside of peer-reviewed research studies published in reputable journals.
While most organizations do not limit themselves to research results from clinical studies involving humans, the reliability of medical claims is obviously considerably greater when based on the results of large-scale, comprehensive human trials (more of which would benefit the industry).
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