A recent review of the research on medical marijuana released by the National Academy of Sciences calls attention to the most compelling reason behind the drive to legalize: The indisputable health benefits of cannabis.
Adopting an unnecessarily conservative set of criteria for inclusion, the report nevertheless concluded that sufficient evidence exists to support the use of cannabis as medicine for a number of health issues, including chronic pain, symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and the side effects of chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients. The report also acknowledges that smoking marijuana does not cause lung cancer, as people often assume.
By adopting a strict set of criteria for a study’s inclusion in their review, however, the report effectively downplays a number of promising studies covering a much wider range of diseases, including the number two cause of death in America: Cancer.
An estimated 595,690 people died of cancer in the United States in 2016. More than 1.6 million new cases were diagnosed. The good news is that the death rate from cancer has continued to trend downwards over the last two decades.
Part of this success comes from the increasing collaboration between the various individuals, groups and institutions fighting against cancer. This, in fact, has been one of the key messages of former Vice President Joe Biden who, after losing his son Beau Biden to brain cancer in 2015, launched the $6.3 billion “Cancer Moonshot” initiative. A central factor in fighting cancer, the way Biden sees it, is “…about keeping these guys cooperating and changing the culture.”
Sadly, a close examination of the federal government’s self-serving, unscientific, and fear-based bias against medical marijuana might elicit precisely the same response. Beating cancer demands that we embrace science, collaborate and build on findings—wherever they may be found, and beat back the culture of ignorance, self-interest and fear that demonizes the cannabis plant.
The Flood of Personal Testimonies
With popular cannabis strains such as “F-Cancer” on the market, it should come as no surprise that there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence available to support the case for cannabis as a medicine for treating certain types of cancer. In fact, over the years, we have seen a number of high-profile cases get picked up by the mainstream media. Tommy Chong, for example, of the famous Grammy Award–winning comedy duo Cheech & Chong, recently reported that he is free of prostrate cancer in part as a result of using medical marijuana. Chong said in a statement,
“With the diet, the supplements and the hash oil…I’m cancer-free. That’s right, I kicked cancer’s ass! So the magic plant does cure cancer with the right diet and supplements. I’m due for another blood test, MRI, etc., but I feel the best I’ve felt in years.”
Those who are familiar with Cannabis Sativa, Inc. (CBDS), or perhaps California Proposition 215, may recall another remarkable story about cannabis and cancer. Former CBDS Chairman Steven Kubby began using cannabis in 1968 to fight the astonishing odds of a fatal form of adrenal cancer (100% mortality rate within five years) which, at one point, “had metastasized to his liver and beyond.” Nearly a half century later, with the daily consumption of cannabis, Steve Kubby is still going strong.
Unfortunately, despite the deluge of compelling cases and grounds for hope, the reality is a lot of anecdotal evidence does not add up to even a little good science. In addition to the fact that only those who survive are alive to share their testimony of the triumph of weed over cancer, there are too many individual differences and unique variables which are difficult to isolate, control, test and replicate—all of which makes it difficult for researchers to make any bold, scientific claims (though “big data” may be able to help with this).
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that cannabis does not kill cancer (indeed, the research is exceptionally promising), or that anecdotal evidence is not useful in helping to inform and design rigorous scientific research.
What’s more, the flood of individual cases and personal testimonies has also been valuable in helping society to rethink its understanding of marijuana, overcome the lies and propaganda of “reefer madness” and the war on drugs, and, in many cases, pass medical marijuana laws in dozens of states.
Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence is not enough. And that means the federal government and all those who defend marijuana’s status as a Schedule I drug stand in the way not just of science and progress, but—sadly, in far too many cases—life itself.
Fortunately, science is catching up. And the evidence, in some cases, is nothing short of miraculous.
The State of Cancer Research
It is true that many marijuana studies are too small to make any scientifically valid claims about the efficacy of cannabis in fighting cancer, while other studies have design flaws or methodological weaknesses that raise questions about their results.
Nevertheless, these are not the biggest problems. The biggest problem is the overall lack of research. With more than 200 different types and subtypes of cancer, it is not surprising that the cannabis research is spread across many different types of cancer (not to mention all the other illnesses where marijuana appears to be able to help). Unfortunately, with so few studies on any one particular type of cancer, it is difficult to get a complete, reliable, verifiable picture of just what cannabis can do.
The good news is that there are a number of promising studies across a range of different types of cancer. This is particularly encouraging given that it suggests cannabis may be targeting one or more underlying mechanisms of action that inhibit cancer cells from growing and spreading, regardless of the particular form of cancer.
It is of course unlikely that there will ever be a magic bullet for all forms of cancer. Nonetheless, consider the following truncated selection of cannabis studies of different types of cancer which report promising results:
- Lung Cancer: By far the most common type of cancer, many people mistakenly believe that smoking marijuana causes lung cancer—it doesn’t. Moreover, a 2007 Harvard University study found that cannabis cut tumor growth in half for patients with lung cancer, and helped to prevent the cancer from spreading.
- Breast Cancer: Working with a grant from the National Institute of Health and approval from the DEA, the research of Dr. Sean McAllister et al “show[s] that CBD inhibits human breast cancer cell proliferation…significantly reduces primary tumor mass as well as…metastasis.” Similarly, a 2011 breast cancer study “found that CBD inhibited the survival of both estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer cell lines and induced apoptosis [the controlled death of cells] in a concentration-dependent manner.” The findings of this study, according to the authors, “suggest that CBD preferentially kills breast cancer cells, while minimizing damage to normal breast tissue.”
- Liver Cancer: A 2011 study found that THC and the cannabinoid JWH-015 inhibited the growth of tumors by stimulating autophagy (literally “self-eating”) which leads to apoptosis in one of the most prevalent forms of liver cancer, Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC)—the third most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the world.
- Prostrate and Colon Cancer: A 2013 study found that non-THC cannabinoids inhibit the growth of prostrate cancer, by inducing cell apoptosis (programmed cell death). What’s more, according to the Daily Beast, “Italian investigators described CBD as “the most efficacious inducer of apoptosis” in prostate cancer. Ditto for cannabidiol and colon cancer, according to British researchers at Lancaster University.”
- Leukemia: A 2006 study found that THC induced apoptosis in leukemia cells. The authors of the study conclude, “THC and other cannabinoids can induce apoptosis in a variety of tumor cell lines, thereby raising the possibility of the use of cannabinoids as novel anticancer agents ”
- Brain Cancer: Using their own cannabis-based drug, GW Pharmaceuticals recently achieved positive results in the treatment of an aggressive type of brain cancer. As reported in Leafly, “The study looked at 21 patients with recurrent glioblastoma multiform, or GBM, and found that participants who were given the drug—a combination of THC and CBD—lived significantly longer than those who took a placebo.”
- Throat Cancer: A 2010 study found that THC inhibited cellular respiration in oral cancer cells. “These results,” writes Whyte et al, “show the cannabinoids are potent inhibitors of Tu183 cellular respiration and are toxic to this highly malignant tumor.”
- Skin Cancer: Melanoma is the most deadly skin cancer in the world. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Madrid found that cannabinoids “exert a remarkable growth-inhibiting effect on melanoma cells…that is evident under various experimental settings…” As with several other types of cancer, the researchers found that the cannabinoids increased apoptosis, decreased cell proliferation, and inhibited metastatic spreading.
How Cannabis is Believed to Fight Cancer,
There are at least four different ways that cannabis is believed to fight against cancer:
- Disrupts Formation of Blood Vessels to Tumors: First, cannabinoids inhibit angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels). The cells in a tumor release chemical signals which tell nearby blood vessels to generate new blood vessels which attach to the tumor. This essentially creates new fuel lines directly to the tumor allowing it to grow and spread. Research repeatedly shows that cannabis inhibits this process, causing the tumor to shrink, preventing it from spreading.
- Prevents Cancer Cells from Proliferation: Second, cannabinoids inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells. In fact, in 2013, an Italian team of researchers found that cannabinoids prevented “cancer cell migration, adhesion, invasion and metastasization.”
- Blocks the Metastasis of Cancer Cells: Third, cannabinoids have an anti-metastatic effect on the cells in a tumor. This is believed to be the result of cannabinoids ability to regulate the extracellular activities of the cancer cells, which plays a role in the fourth way that cannabis fights cancer.
- Selectively Targets and Kills Cancer Cells: Fourth, cannabinoids induce targeted apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the cells of a tumor. As Martin Lee reports in the Daily Beast, “…like a heat-seeking missile, THC selectively targets and destroys tumor cells while leaving healthy cells unscathed.”
The ability of cannabis to protect against inflammation is also thought to play a role in its healing properties, as well as protecting against some diseases, including cancer. As neuroscientist Loren Devito, Ph.D. writes, “Researchers have also found that cannabis may protect normal cells from death…”
Where Do We Go From Here
While the DEA continues to deny the “medical use” of cannabis, the U.S. government has known about the cancer fighting properties of THC at least as far back as 1974, when federal bureaucrats sponsored a study at the Medical College of Virginia.
According to an August 18, 1974 article in the Washington Post, “The active chemical agent in marijuana curbs the growth of three kinds of cancer in mice and may also suppress the immunity reaction that causes rejection of organ transplants, a Medical College of Virginia team has discovered.” The researchers “found that THC slowed the growth of lung cancers, breast cancers and a virus-induced leukemia in laboratory mice, and prolonged their lives by as much as 36 percent.” These records were later destroyed under Reagan, around the time of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.
Today, even while the DEA continues to stand in the way, the U.S. government is slightly more forthcoming, quietly acknowledging some of the important findings from cannabis studies on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Servcies’ National Cancer Institute website.
The reality is that there is now overwhelming evidence for the wide therapeutic potential of cannabis. Meanwhile, the evidence for cannabis as a potential cure for cancer continues to accumulate.
Yet, our understanding of the endocannabinoid system and the effects of cannabis on cancer is still incomplete. While progress has been remarkable and highly encouraging, the biggest challenge is the need for more research. The biggest problem, therefore, is the federal government’s continued classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug.
Attempting to work with the federal government to conduct scientific research on medical marijuana, according to UC Berkeley professor Amanda Reiman, as quoted in the Cannabist, is like “trying to ride a bike with your legs tied together and your arms tied behind your back while blindfolded.”
Unfortunately, despite claims about supporting further research, the practical experience of cannabis researchers such as Dr. Sue Sisley is that, “the research on the efficacy of marijuana has been systematically impeded by the federal government for two decades.”
The good news is, despite the federal government’s obstinacy, state legislators across the country are moving ahead. Professor Reiman, who also works at the pro-reform Drug Policy Alliance, says “Right now we’re basing policy on what people are experiencing…These folks have AIDS and cancer and Crohn’s and MS and colitis, and they deserve the chance to have a happy, healthy life—and we’re not going to wait around for the government to allow this research.”
“We’re are all for more research,” explains Marijuana Majority’s chairman Tom Angell. “But research takes a long time, and many patients are suffering right now.”