There’s no question cannabis can ease the pain and suffering of cancer patients, especially those undergoing a punishing regime of chemo and/or radiation. Even the medical establishment admits as much.
But the Internet is bubbling over with testimonials that take the claim much further: Not only is the green goddess Mary Jane a powerful medicine in her own right, but there may be no better treatment for the world’s most effective killer. As in, cannabis doesn’t just help a little, but basically obliterates tumors and cancerous conditions in the body with a slick biochemical intelligence rarely seen in conventional allopathic oncology.
Okay...But what does the science say? It sounds too good to be true. Can reefer really succeed where so many others have failed?
Reason for optimism
Well, let’s start with some easier questions...Is cannabis a miracle cure/cure-all/magic bullet for cancer, or any other disease? No. Is there a time-tested international body of mostly pre-clinical work establishing MJ’s cancer-curative and -preventative potential under controlled conditions? Absolutely. That’s the good news. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
“We’ve known for over 40 years now that THC, and the active ingredients in cannabis, are able to kill cancer cells in many cases.” Those are the words of Dr. Jeffrey Hergenrather of Northern California, one of the country’s leading experts in cannabis therapeutics and medical marijuana research.
The statement stands in sharp contrast to the plant’s DEA-enforced status as a \“Schedule I\” drug under federal law, i.e. one with no medicinal value whatsoever and high potential for abuse. That makes it illegal for any U.S. physician to \“prescribe\” marijuana, even for cancer. (Medical marijuana is only \“recommended\” in states where it is legal.)
Yet Dr. Hergenrather can point to the aforementioned research suggesting cannabis does have the ability to disarm cancer under the right conditions. \“A majority of those [molecular-level] studies show anti-cancer effects,\” agrees Dr. Jonathan Cachat, a biomedical data scientist and medical marijuana advocate also based out of NorCal. \“The only caveat I am aware of is if the tumor does not have cannabinoid receptors, then phytocannabinoid treatment will not be effective.\”
War on cancer vs. war on cannabis
Still, most American oncologists aren’t impressed. They continue to keep their distance from medical marijuana, citing insufficient proof of its efficacy in humans, insufficient knowledge of its indications and proper dosage — in short, not enough human clinical trials. They point out that, aside from all the anecdotal and unofficial clinical experience, most of the science still comes from the lab. Also, many studies have employed animals like rats as test subjects. Humans are not rats. And lab experiments are not human clinical trials.
However, the reasons for the stunted science of medical marijuana are not primarily medical or scientific, but political.
In the U.S., good-faith attempts to investigate the plant’s therapeutic capacities have been stigmatized and suppressed within a climate long dominated by Prohibition. A maddening catch-22 serves to enforce a ‘glass ceiling’ on all petitions to test-drive the botanical in trials: Effectively, any change to pot’s Schedule I status would require formal clinical trials proving it can be safe and effective. But serious federally-approved clinical trials aren’t allowed because the substance in question is classified as Schedule I...Very funny, Uncle Sam.
In the shadow of prohibition
But the problem runs deeper than just a low clinical-trial count.
The biological basis for the medical efficacy of cannabis lies in its plug-and-play relationship with the body’s own \“endocannabinoid\” system, or ECS. The ECS is actually the largest neuroreceptor system in the human brain, and probably the whole body. It exists ubiquitously throughout most animal bodies in fact, serving a pivotal role in overall homeostasis, immune function, and nervous system communication. Its extensive presence in higher organisms partly explains why cannabis can help with so many different conditions, including cancers originating in many different parts of the body.
Incredibly, most American physicians don’t even learn about the endocannabinoid system in medical school, despite more than two decades of knowledge development in this cutting-edge area of research. That is the extent of the stigma – the discovery of a major, integral bodily system has simply been ignored because of its association with a criminalized herb. Little wonder then that the idea of medical marijuana still sounds like a New Age conspiracy theory in the clinic. The science of its basic structure and mechanisms remains mysterious to the majority of American practitioners.
In evolutionary terms, the ECS is much older than either humans or marijuana. Scientists have identified a handful of other cannabinoid-bearing plants (including chocolate!) that unlock this system, and these appear to have some anti-carcinogenic tendencies as well. But nothing seems to have a therapeutic potency comparable to the Cannabis genus with its star phytocannabinoids, THC and CBD. These molecules have been shown to have remarkable \”tumoricidal\” effects, in addition to anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-like benefits.
Actually, THC and CBD are only the highest-profile characters in the show. Cannabis connoisseurs say whole-plant medicine draws on a complex choreography interlinking THC and CBD with the hundreds of other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids contained in a single plant. This is the famous \“entourage effect\”: Each molecule plays its part while also contributing to the greater therapeutic synergy, in ways we’re just beginning to understand.
Interestingly, strictly informal D-I-Y efforts to treat cancer with cannabis tend to employ highly concentrated, \“full-spectrum\” oil extracts or hash — incidentally, nothing like the refined alt-cannabinoidal pharmaceuticals the FDA has approved as Schedule II substances, which can be legally prescribed for the side effects of cancer and chemo.
While cannabis may help some folks with some cancers, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily work for every kind of cancer or every patient, or that the effects can be easily predicted and controlled — not to mention the myriad other variables that influence how marijuana and a given person’s body and mind get along together.
According to our friend Dr. Hergenrather: “Not all tumors are sensitive to cannabinoids. Common lung cancer, and some thyroid and breast carcinomas do not appear to respond well to cannabis treatment. Cancers that have responded include neuroblastomas, certain types of breast cancer, hepatic, renal, pancreatic cancer; colorectal, cervical and prostate cancers, Hodgkins, Non-Hodgkins, and Mantle cell lymphomas, some leukemias, skin cancers, and sarcomas.”
These comments are hardly the last word on which cancers could benefit from bud. Lots more research is needed to grasp and advance our knowledge, of course, so expect the science to evolve a long ways from where we are now – especially if/when Prohibition lets up...Anyway, none of this is, like, medical advice. Don’t forget to bug your doctor for the real thing.
High on hope
Even with all the conflict and uncertainty surrounding this issue, at the end of the day it’s hard not to get excited imagining what cannabis could do for a world beset by cancer and other devastating diseases. Despite the inertia of institutions, it seems that misunderstood Mary Jane is already bringing something deeply healthful to the masses: hope.