Background: There has been increased interest in the role of cannabis for treating medical conditions. The availability of different cannabis-based products can make the side effects of exposure unpredictable. We sought to conduct a scoping review of systematic reviews assessing benefits and harms of cannabis-based medicines for any condition.
Methods: A protocol was followed throughout the conduct of this scoping review. A protocol-guided scoping review conduct. Searches of bibliographic databases (e.g., MEDLINE®, Embase, PsycINFO, the Cochrane Library) and gray literature were performed. Two people selected and charted data from systematic reviews. Categorizations emerged during data synthesis. The reporting of results from systematic reviews was performed at a high level appropriate for a scoping review.
Results: After screening 1975 citations, 72 systematic reviews were included. The reviews covered many conditions, the most common being pain management. Several reviews focused on management of pain as a symptom of conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), injury, and cancer. After pain, the most common symptoms treated were spasticity in MS, movement disturbances, nausea/vomiting, and mental health symptoms. An assessment of review findings lends to the understanding that, although in a small number of reviews results showed a benefit for reducing pain, the analysis approach and reporting in other reviews was sub-optimal, making it difficult to know how consistent findings are when considering pain in general. Adverse effects were reported in most reviews comparing cannabis with placebo (49/59, 83%) and in 20/24 (83%) of the reviews comparing cannabis to active drugs. Minor adverse effects (e.g., drowsiness, dizziness) were common and reported in over half of the reviews. Serious harms were not as common, but were reported in 21/59 (36%) reviews that reported on adverse effects. Overall, safety data was generally reported study-by-study, with few reviews synthesizing data. Only one review was rated as high quality, while the remaining were rated of moderate (n = 36) or low/critically low (n = 35) quality.
Conclusions: Results from the included reviews were mixed, with most reporting an inability to draw conclusions due to inconsistent findings and a lack of rigorous evidence. Mild harms were frequently reported, and it is possible the harms of cannabis-based medicines may outweigh benefits.
Systematic review registration: The protocol for this scoping review was posted in the Open Access (https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/37247).
Keywords: Cannabis; Marijuana; Medical marijuana; Scoping review; Systematic review.