Explainers

Explainer: Does marijuana cure cancer?

June 22, 2017
Cancer researchers in Israel. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
JACK GUEZ | AFP | Getty
Cancer researchers in Israel. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
SOURCE: JACK GUEZ | AFP | Getty

Cancer is a disease that looms large. It is one of the leading causes of death and one in three of us will be diagnosed with it during our lifetimes. Unfortunately, the cancer rates are only rising. The National Institute of Cancer estimates that by 2030, its death toll will have increased by 60%. Some are looking to cannabis to cure this deadly disease. But is cannabis a cure - or is this just wishful thinking?

Cancer Patient Success Stories With Medical Pot

Anecdotal accounts abound of patients curing their own cancer using high-potency edible cannabis extracts. Take Dennis Hill, a prostate cancer patient who decided to forgo chemotherapy and try cannabis instead. His story of complete recovery after six months of cannabis use is available online - along with his medical record and journal of his progress. Or Kelly Hauf - who decided to try cannabis oil in the months leading up to a scheduled surgery to remove a brain tumor. After eight months of treatment, there was nothing left of her tumor to remove. These stories are hard to ignore - but many doctors advise patients not to assume that cannabis was the cause of these incredible recoveries.

Doctors Cautious About Weed for Cancer

Dr. Abrams, a leading oncologist at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine says he has seen cannabis help many with the side effects of cancer but cautions against assuming cannabis is a cure. He says given his high proportion of cannabis using patients, ‘if cannabis definitively cured cancer, I would have expected that I would have a lot more survivors.’

Cannabis is well-established as a treatment for the side effects of cancer and chemotherapy, like nausea, vomiting, pain, anxiety, insomnia, and lack of appetite. But in a comprehensive review of the cannabis literature, researchers from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found there to be insufficient evidence to say that cannabis can treat cancer directly. Without large-scale, placebo controlled clinical trials, doctors and researchers don’t have the solid evidence they’d need to recommend cannabis for cancer treatment.

Science Shows Cannabis Has Anti-Cancer Properties

Still other scientists are more hopeful about cannabis’ potential efficacy, and point to laboratory and animal studies that show cannabinoids like CBD and THC kill cancer cells in laboratory conditions - without harming the healthy cells nearby. While clinical trials on human subjects is still a ways off - given cannabis’ status as a controlled substance - the preclinical data gives reason to hope that patients stories of success aren’t just flukes.

“There is a large body of scientific data which indicates that cannabinoids specifically inhibit cancer cell growth and promote cancer cell death” explains Dr. David Meiri, the lead researcher on an Israeli project studying 50 varieties of cannabis and its effects on 200 different cancer cells. Meiri and his team have successfully killed brain and breast cancer cells through exposure to cannabis and they are hopeful they can find more varieties of cancer cells that respond to this treatment.

Still, experts caution against forgoing traditional treatment options. Dr. Meiri’s research suggests that not all cancer cells respond to cannabinoids in the same way. Even if cannabis can help with some cancers, it might not work the same for all. Additional research, specifically placebo-controlled clinical trials, are needed to fully understand how to handle each type of cancer individually.

With a condition as deadly as cancer, it is crucial to know whether a high cannabinoid regimen would work for any particular case, before foregoing alternatives that might help. Still while clinical research on cannabis continues to stall, patients must decide whether to wait indefinitely or follow in the footsteps of patients before them - experimenting with cannabis on their own.