This post is a bit personal. About a month ago I was diagnosed with melanoma. As you might expect, I immediately began to look for information about the disease, its prognosis, treatment options, etc. As I sorted through the various websites such as the American Cancer Society I found a lot of pages with a lot of good information about what was coming for me over the next weeks and months.
As I scrolled down the list of search results I began to see some sites that had information about marijuana and cancer. Of course, there was a lot of information about how marijuana eases the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of some of the cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. But I also started running into sites that had claims that marijuana, or more specifically the active ingredients in marijuana, may actually fight cancer. As I looked over some of these sites I took the information with a grain of salt. Most were “stoner” sites that mixed conversations about medical marijuana with recipes for pot brownies and such. Some were apparently sites that were run by marijuana dispensaries in places like California. While I found the information interesting, I didn’t put a lot of faith in what I was reading.
Yesterday I went back to my surgical oncologist for a followup to last week’s surgery and to have my stitches removed, and I learned that I have to go back for further surgery. So I went back to the internet for more information, and this time I wound up on the National Cancer Institute‘s site. After reading some of the other information that they provided, I decided to see what, if anything, they had to say about marijuana and cancer. I was astounded by what I found.
Cannabinoids, the active ingredients in marijuana, have been suspected to have the following potentially beneficial effects:
- Anti-inflammatory activity
- Blocking cell growth
- Preventing the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors
- anti-viral activity
On the same page, the NCI lists the following information about laboratory studies that have been conducted using cannabis or cannabinoids:
- Studies in mice and rats have shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth, and blocking the development of blood vessels needed by tumors to grow. Laboratory and animal studies have shown that cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells while protecting normal cells.
- A study in mice showed that cannabinoids may protect against inflammation of the colon and may have potential in reducing the risk of colon cancer, and possibly in its treatment.
- A laboratory study of delta-9-THC in hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) cells showed that it damaged or killed the cancer cells. The same study of delta-9-THC in mouse models of liver cancer showed that it had antitumor effects. Delta-9-THC has been shown to cause these effects by acting on molecules that may also be found in non-small cell lung cancer cells and breast cancer cells.
- A laboratory study of cannabidiol in estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative breast cancer cells showed that it caused cancer cell death while having little effect on normal breast cells.
After all of the information that suggests that cannabinoids and marijuana may have valid uses in cancer treatment, the NCI offers this:
In other words, despite animal and laboratory studies that offer results that beg for further study and clinical trials, nothing is being done. Why?
One possible reason is the federal government’s marijuana policy. One one hand, a federal agency, the NCI, lists a variety of potential therapeutic uses for marijuana and cannabinoid extracts, while on the other hand another federal agency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, offers up “reefer madness” type material on their site. In a time of tight money for medical research, is part of the reason that no one is looking into the possible anti-cancer benefits of marijuana because they believe they would be driving down a dead end street? In other words, that the federal government would reject any potentially positive results out of hand and the researchers’ time and money would simply be wasted?
When President Obama came into office he indicated that prosecuting medical marijuana users would not be a priority. After last fall’s election, which saw Colorado and Washington state approve recreational use of cannabis, the president again said that prosecuting users would not be a priority. However, in reality, the federal government continues to close down marijuana dispensaries in states like California, and confusion over federal policy has caused states like Delaware, which passed a medical marijuana law that was signed by governor Jack Markell, to suspend implementation of the law until the federal Justice Department provides clarification of the status of medical marijuana. Thus far the only response that anyone seems to have gotten from the federal government is that marijuana is a Class 1 controlled substance and that state laws approving medical marijuana do not prevent citizens from being the subject of federal prosecutions.
Most people (including, I’ll surmise, most politicians) do not even know the following about marijuana:
- Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for over 3,000 years. It became popular in the 1800′s as a way to treat pain, inflammation, and convulsions
- The U.S. Treasury began taxing marijuana in 1937 under the Marihuana Tax Act. That act set a $1 per ounce tax for medicinal marijuana and $100 per ounce for recreational marijuana.
- Marijuana was removed from the U.S. Pharmacopoeia in 1942, and was linked with narcotic drugs by the Boggs Act in 1951. It became linked with hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine thanks to the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.
- The United States government holds the patent for medical marijuana.
The fact that the federal government distributed marijuana to certain patients under the Compassionate Use Investigational New Drug Program between 1978 and 1992 is another example of the federal contradictions on marijuana. By definition, Class 1 controlled substances have “no currently accepted medical use.” Since the government provided therapeutic marijuana is that not an acknowledgement that it does have an accepted medical use, and therefore should not be a Class 1 drug?
The evidence is plain that marijuana has at least the potential to provide benefits to cancer patients beyond the currently accepted uses for nausea and appetite stimulation. By either discouraging or not actively encouraging clinical trials of marijuana and cannabinoids in cancer patients, the federal government may be keeping people from access to a drug that used in combination with other treatments could at least improve patients’ quality of life, or even save lives. It is time to change the marijuana laws.