The therapeutic use of cannabis and cannabis-based medicines raises safety concerns for patients, clinicians, policy-makers, insurers, researchers and regulators. Although the efficacy of cannabinoids is being increasingly demonstrated in randomized controlled trials, most safety information comes from studies of recreational use.
We performed a systematic review of safety studies of medical cannabinoids published over the past 40 years to create an evidence base for cannabis-related adverse events and to facilitate future cannabis research initiatives. We critically evaluated the quality of published studies with a view to identifying ways to improve future studies.
A total of 321 articles were eligible for evaluation. After excluding those that focused on recreational cannabis use, we included 31 studies (23 randomized controlled trials and 8 observational studies) of medical cannabis use in our analysis. In the 23 randomized controlled trials, the median duration of cannabinoid exposure was 2 weeks (range 8 hours to 12 months). A total of 4779 adverse events were reported among participants assigned to the intervention. Most (4615 [96.6%]) were not serious. Of the 164 serious adverse events, the most common was relapse of multiple sclerosis (21 events [12.8%]), vomiting (16 events [9.8%]) and urinary tract infection (15 events [9.1%]). The rate of nonserious adverse events was higher among participants assigned to medical cannabinoids than among controls (rate ratio [RR] 1.86, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.57–2.21); the rates of serious adverse events did not differ significantly between these 2 groups (RR 1.04, 95% CI 0.78–1.39). Dizziness was the most commonly reported nonserious adverse event (714 events [15.5%]) among people exposed to cannabinoids.
Short-term use of existing medical cannabinoids appeared to increase the risk of nonserious adverse events. The risks associated with long-term use were poorly characterized in published clinical trials and observational studies. High-quality trials of long-term exposure are required to further characterize safety issues related to the use of medical cannabinoids.
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