Cancer And Cannabis: The Good, The Bad, And The Confusing

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Marijuana is an excellent topic if you’re in the mood to spark debate. Feelings toward the drug have softened since 1970, when the Controlled Substances Act made all types of cannabis use illegal in the United States, but whether or not it should be illegal is still hotly debated.

In 2017, the World Health Organization announced that cannabidol (CBD), a compound found in cannabis plants, is non-addictive and non-toxic, and should not be considered a drug. They found that CBD can be used in the treatment of epilepsy and other serious health conditions and that CBD does not have psychoactive properties.

So why is it not widely available? Well, like most things related to marijuana, it’s complicated.

What’s in a name?

While marijuana has a host of nicknames that all essentially mean the same thing, the terms cannabis and marijuana are not synonymous. Marijuana is made from the seeds, leaves, and flowers of certain cannabis plants. Cannabis refers to a family of plants, and medical marijuana is usually made from a hybrid of cannabis indica and cannabis sativa. Cannabis varieties vary greatly in terms of psychoactive properties and practical uses.

The term cannabinoid refers to the compounds found in cannabis plants. CBD and THC are the most talked about cannabinoids in cannabis, and both have potential to aid with various medical conditions. The amount of CBD and THC varies in different types of cannabis.

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is responsible for most of marijuana’s psychological effects. THC causes the happy feeling and coordination impairment associated with marijuana use. THC may also cause hallucinations, anxiety attacks, and/or short-term memory impairment. Positive effects may include dopamine release, pain relief, nausea prevention and relief, sedation, and even weight loss.

Cannabinoids and Cancer Treatment: A Little Background

Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years; scientist even theorize that a 2,500-year-old mummy found in Siberia used cannabis as a treatment for breast cancer. And truth be told, cannabinoids are used in cancer treatment today. The drugs Dronabinol and Nabilone are used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy, and both contain cannabinoids.

There have been studies that report that cannabinoids can slow the growth of or even kill certain cancer cells. A 2014 journal article in Oncotarget on the effects of cannabinoids on cancer cells concluded that, “The administration of single cannabinoids might produce limited relief compared to the administration of crude extract of plant containing multiple cannabinoids… Thus, combination of cannabinoids with other chemotherapeutic drugs might provide a potent clinical outcome, reduce toxicity, increase specificity and overcome drug resistance complications.”

The article noted that more studies are needed, which is consistent with the feelings of the American Cancer Society. We should note that the American Cancer Society has not taken a position on the legalization of medical marijuana as they feel more research is needed.

Marijuana Use for Cancer Treatment

While the health claims of marijuana use for medical purposes vary greatly, most sources agree that there are some benefits associated with its use for those going through cancer treatment. Some studies have even found that certain cannabinoids may slow the growth of cancer cells.

But cannabis derivatives, namely marijuana, are probably best known as an option for the treatment of cancer symptoms. Studies have shown that marijuana can help relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and reduce nausea and vomiting. It may also improve appetite. Medical claims about the benefits of marijuana vary greatly, so of course it’s best to talk to your doctor about the legal options in your area—legality will also vary greatly from state to state.

And while there is a large body of evidence showing the benefits of cannabinoids in cancer treatment, it would be remiss not to mention the potential dangers.

Potential Drawbacks of Marijuana Use

Marijuana produces a high which, while often enjoyable, can lower response times and coordination, impair memory, and possibly interact negatively with other medications. It can also cause troubled thoughts and anxiety or paranoia. When smoked, marijuana delivers harmful substances to both the smoker and others in the vicinity, and marijuana smoke includes some of the same substances as tobacco smoke. Some users may also develop marijuana dependence.

Each person’s body chemistry will react differently to the drug, so how it will affect someone is not 100% predictable. It’s not a clear-cut solution—even before we start the discussion about legality.

So What’s Legal?

If CBD alone is so great, and even the World Health Organization has given it the green light, why aren’t we all signing up to use it? Probably because legality around CBD use is still muddy. Generally, CBD sourced from medical marijuana is legal in states where medical marijuana is legal, and CBD sourced from industrial hemp is legal in states with laws allowing for industrial hemp growth. Still, check your own state’s laws to be sure of what’s legal in your area.

Where CBD is sourced from makes a difference because different cannabis sources will have varying levels of THC. CBD sourced from industrial hemp has extremely low levels of THC, whereas the cannabis plants used to make marijuana have much higher levels (though they vary from strain to strain).

The trouble is that THC and CBD are both found in cannabis, and in the United States, cannabis use is still illegal at the federal level regardless of how much THC or CBD is in a certain strain. Many potential users may not be aware of the difference between THC or CBD, and by the time someone is ready to use a cannabis strain for medicinal or recreational purposes, it’s usually just called marijuana (or a host of other colorful nicknames). And while not all cannabis is marijuana, all marijuana is cannabis, and all cannabis is, strictly speaking, prohibited at the federal level in the United States.

Changing Opinion and Changing Policy

Certainly public opinion in the United States regarding cannabis is changing, and marijuana use is extremely popular. 56% of Americans have tried it by the time they are in their 20s.

Despite federal laws against it, some states have passed legislation allowing its use for medical or even recreational purposes. Again, please check your state’s laws before trying any form of cannabis. As of early 2018, 29 states and the District of Columbia allow the use of medical marijuana, and 6 of those states, as well as D.C., allow recreational use. Massachusetts and Maine are expected to begin sales of recreational marijuana sometime in 2018, pushing the recreational states to 8.

Marijuana being legal at a state level but illegal at a federal level is confusing both for those interested in its use and for law enforcement. Who’s in charge? The states or the federal government?

In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department said it would not block states from legalizing marijuana, and the then-deputy attorney general, James Cole, release a memo that made it clear that states must prevent marijuana sales to minors and prevent interstate trafficking, but other than that indicated what was interpreted as a “hands off” policy when it came to interfering with a state’s decision on marijuana.

However, in early 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the policy that had discouraged federal prosecution of marijuana crimes. The Justice Department did not clarify if the federal government planned to crackdown on current marijuana dispensaries.

While some have applauded the change, states that have legalized marijuana have expressed concerns. In Colorado, marijuana sales have topped a billion dollars a year, and the industry provides thousands of jobs. Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado said, “With no prior notice to Congress, the Justice Department has trampled on the will of the voters in Colorado and other states.”

So What Happens Now?

The future of cannabis use in the United States is yet unknown. How cannabis is used, both in the U.S. and around the world, could change drastically one way or the other in the next few years. Those interested in trying marijuana to treat cancer symptoms or other health conditions would be wise to talk to their doctor about getting approved for medical marijuana use, check their state’s individual laws, and use a licensed dispensary to fill marijuana prescriptions.

We at the Breast Cancer Site hope that all possible treatments for cancer will continue to be explored and no stone will be unturned in the search for a cure. As for your decision, we agree wholeheartedly with the American Cancer Society that your treatment plan is between you and your doctor and should honor your personal values and your area’s applicable laws.

Keep fighting, friends!

The World Health Organization's Update on CBD: Click “Next” below!

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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