Marijuana has long been the subject of debate, pro-legalisation campaigners argue that marijuana can cure a wide variety of diseases (as a quick google search will show) from various Psychoses to Autism, Alzheimer’s, or perhaps most worryingly Cancer. For many of these stories there is no strong evidence of any benefit, in fact, marijuana may be actively harmful.

In this article, we will try to address some common misconceptions and discuss why this is not only false but also potentially harmful to those who are at their most vulnerable.

So, what is marijuana? Humans have been using cannabis for many thousands of years, the active ingredient (THC) was first discovered in the 1960’s. Cannabis acts on two main types of receptor CB1, found in the nervous system and probably responsible for the “high”, and CB2 receptors which are found mostly in the immune system.

An image of the plant
Cannabis, in the wild. Source: Pexels

So, we have established what cannabis is, but what myths are there surrounding it, and why do people believe it may be effective against cancer?

Well, studies have shown, a very small number of studies have shown, that in a petri dish, high concentrations of THC can kill certain types of cancer cells. (Whilst this may seem hopeful we need to be extremely, extremely careful about applying these results to live patients.) Other studies have shown that cannabis can damage healthy blood cells or even encourage cancer cell growth, as well as interfering with the immune system (questions still remain about dosage, side effects and which, if any, methods of delivery are actually able to target the cancer.)

Furthermore, in live patients only a single clinical trial has ever been performed. Nine patients were given high concentration THC through a tube directly into their brain. Whilst some patients showed a response, all were dead within a year, as you would expect from the type of cancer being targeted, hardly the miracle cure being touted. These results may prove that given in this way the treatment is without side effects, but the fact remains this is still an extremely early stage trial with very few participants and no control group.

Perhaps more research may reveal something, but until then it is impossible to say that cannabis is a cure.

Many anecdotes are available, for those of you who wish to look into this further, concerning people who have purportedly been cured of cancer using cannabis, hemp, cannabis oil or other derivatives.

However, despite what people may say there is no solid scientific evidence and it is often impossible to tell what other factors (read treatments) may have affected the patient, or indeed if these stories are genuine. (Any and all treatments need solid evidence-based backing before being approved.)

Some argue that this is a conspiracy. Cannabis proponents will argue that as cannabis can’t be patented it is often hushed up by “Big Pharma”, the evidence suppressed so that they can hawk their own creations. And whilst I will freely admit that the involvement of profit in medicine disquiets me and that certain pharmaceutical companies have a less than spotless record, this is simply not true.

A marajuana leaf beneath a stop sign
Marijuana – no

Moreover, this can be actively harmful, painting pro-legalisation campaigners as robin-hood style dissidents fighting against the malicious, if often ill-defined, “man”, draws too eerily to mind the role of Andrew Wakefield in the Autism/MMR scandal. The scandal left millions of children at risk and caused numerous outbreaks, including the first measles death in 14 years!

Some may choose to argue that, as marijuana is relatively harmless it doesn’t matter, however cannabis has a number of side effects including heart complications and interactions with other medications (including chemotherapy drugs) and, despite what people may say, it is addictive and the use of illegally sourced cannabis leaves people at risk of contaminants, cutting and blatant scams.

Cannabis may be effective to relieve some forms of cancer pain and sickness but there are many other safer and more effective drugs out there, and there are major problems in determining dosage, delivery and mediating the psychoactive side effects, so cannabis only tends to be used, if at all, when all else fails.

But isn’t cannabis natural? Well, in three words (as I don’t have anymore), so is Arsenic.

It seems likely to me this article will provoke debate, and in many ways, I hope it does. But, at this moment, there is simply zero strong evidence to suggest cannabis is an effective cure for cancer.

Want to learn more about cannabis, read this throw back article where Hannah Butler looks into using genetics to predict your response to cannabis.

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