When people ask why I’m certain the federal laws preventing medical use of cannabis must change, my answer is simple: cancer. Curing it is the holy grail of modern medicine, and cannabinoids hold the most promise.
The latest study showing the cancer-fighting properties of one of the constituent components of the cannabis plant is out of Italy, where University of Naples researchers demonstrated that cannabidiol, better known as CBD, helps prevent the spread of colon cancer in an animal model of the human disease. Since colon cancer affects millions of people, this is a big deal.
But it’s not big news.
Many, many other studies have demonstrated that CBD’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions, as well as its ability to inhibit the breakdown of the body’s own endocannabinoids, have a cancer-fighting effect. CBD has been shown to kill glioma cells (the most deadly form of brain cancer), reduce the growth of lung and breast cancer cells, and inhibit the spread of cancer. And that’s just CBD.
Add in THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis available by prescription in synthetic form as dronabinol or Marinol, and scientists have demonstrated that the plant holds the potential to fight or prevent cancers of the breast, prostate, skin, lung, uterus, cervix, pancreas, mouth and biliary track, as well as leukemia, neuroblastoma, thyroid epithelioma, and gastric adenocarcinoma. All by selectively targeting cancerous cells and leaving healthy cells alone.
That’s in contrast to conventional cancer treatments that largely work by creating a toxic environment in the body with the hope that it kills the cancer before it kills the patient. And as hard as chemotherapy and radiation treatments are to tolerate, cannabinoid treatments have exceptionally low impact.
Now, to be clear: we’re not talking about a patent-medicine approach that says cannabis will cure whatever ails you, and there have been no clinical studies done with cancer patients that would show us anything conclusive one way or another.
But there is a mountain of evidence that the immune-modulating function of cannabinoids has everything to do with regulating how our bodies respond to cancers of all varieties. And it’s worth noting the federal government’s own National Cancer Institute recently published a guide for physicians that noted the cancer-fighting properties of cannabinoids and stated that cannabis could be a tool for controlling the disease.
Five days of media attention later, the NCI removed that particular bit of guidance, but what we now know about the mechanisms of cannabinoids on cancers raises significant questions about when best to use cannabis therapeutics. Most wait until the disease reaches an advanced stage, and for them the role of cannabis or dronabinol is almost entirely palliative – a tool to ease the suffering and nausea. But we have compelling evidence that cannabinoids exercise a profound prophylactic effect – potentially preventing cancers from developing in the first place.
So will people with family histories of cancer or other risk factors benefit from cannabinoids? Maybe. There are population studies that suggest so, but general results cannot predict outcomes for a particular individual. In other words, consuming lots of cannabis won’t necessarily protect you. Bob Marley died of cancer, after all.
How much might help is a serious question. We know that many of the actions of cannabinoids are dose-specific, but without qualitatively different research, we can’t know how much might be optimal to achieve any particular biologic objective, even if we know categorically that cannabis is non-toxic and well-tolerated.
Will we see that research soon? Seems likely. There’s a Nobel prize in it for someone. Sure, there are political and economic barriers. But it’s a politics of fear and an economics of greed. Neither can survive with millions of lives in the balance.
Ironically, given the vast economic engine prohibition has wrought, cannabinoids are problematic for pharmaceutical company profits, since plants are not novel compounds they can patent for the purpose of extracting return on their research investment. That means real clinical research, the kind that can develop the cancer treatments current studies promise, requires massive public funding.
Devoting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to cannabis every year may seem daunting. But we already do.
We just spend it on interdiction and incarceration instead of research and development.
Research study discussed:
Aviello G, et al. Chemopreventive effect of the non-psychotropic phytocannabinoid cannabidiol on experimental colon cancer. Journal of Molecular Medicine. 2012 Jan 10.
ASA’s booklet on Cannabis and Cancer