Everyday there seems to be a new headline, like ‘cannabis cures cancer,’ loudly proclaiming the curative powers of cannabis, just how do we separate fact from fiction?
One of the most dangerous parts of the recent rise in popularity of medical cannabis is the spread of false information. False information about cannabis is prolifically spread from blog to blog. It’s like a bad game of telephone, where each repetition dilutes the scientific facts more and more. And these exaggerations end up tarnishing the image of the plant or giving false hope to sick people. Can we validate that cannabis cures cancer, cannabis reverses dementia, cannabis stops arthritis, or cannabis cures depression? Let’s see what we know so far.
Why is There So Much Misinformation about Medical Cannabis?
An intense scientific study is required before healing stories can be proven beyond a doubt. The good news for patients is that cannabis research is definitely well underway. The sheer number of studies can be overwhelming, however, which is part of the reason why so much false information exists about the plant in the first place.
Thanks to the internet, and searchable databases like the National Center for Biotechnology Information and Google Scholar, everyone can pull up research on cannabis. The problem? Most people aren’t trained to pull information from dense, jargon-filled medical abstracts, nor to decipher studies based on quality.
Also, the vast majority of these studies are only preliminary. Preliminary means in the early stages of scientific exploration; in a petri dish, or at best, on lab animals. Taking these initial conclusions, and applying them to human disease is possibly inaccurate. This is why we move to human clinical trials if the animal trials prove promising. That being said, passing animal trials is no small thing. The reason that rodents are the animal of choice for cannabis research is largely due to the similarity in human and rat/mouse CB1 receptors, which have 97 to 99% parity (Source: Pharmacol. Rev. 54: 181-202).
Yet, There Are Cannabis-Based Pharmaceuticals on The Market
To date, there are only two approved uses for cannabis-derived medicines: Epidiolex, a CBD-based drug, for intractable epilepsy, and Sativex, a THC:CBD combination, approved to treat the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. Sativex has also recently been granted a patent on a formulation that will be used for the treatment of cancer.
There are currently no other cannabis-based medicines that have made it through human clinical trials, nor has the plant made it past the enormous roadblock of being deemed Schedule I (in the U.S). So, there’s one more (unjust, ridiculous, possibly criminal) slow down for researching the real plant in controlled human trials.
What are the Most Common Claims About Medical Cannabis?
Cannabis Cures Cancer
There is a lot of emotion around this one, and a growing stack of anecdotal success. The truth is, the scientific evidence that cannabinoids: reduce tumor size, prevent tumor growth, and stop metastasis is still in the preliminary stages of research. In a petri dish, it looks amazing, in the rodent model, very promising, but neither of these are the human body. We simply have not reached the point of human clinical trials (with the exception of Sativex, which is a whole-plant based cannabis drug made by GW Pharmaceuticals.)
Science has figured out how THC induces apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells and concurs that this cannabinoid is very good at that job. It has learned that CBD is THE ONLY outside agent that can regulate the insidious Id-1 in human breast cancer cells, to stop them from metastasizing. And that is close to miraculous for breast cancer patients (if it works in the human body)! And then there’s this crazy, complex flagging system that THC uses make a cancer cell give up its position so the immune system can come and get it. Cannabis is a versatile and clever medicine that works well with the animal body to treat disease, of that their is no doubt. Science just is not able to say, “Yes, cannabis is a good treatment for cancer.” Yet.
If anecdotal evidence could stand in for science, it would be already be considered true that ‘cannabis cures cancer.’ Sure, it doesn’t help everyone, but there is no medicine in the world that does; that’s just a factor of genetics and individual health status. The caveat is that anecdotal is not scientific proof, if you want to wait for that part, it’s years down the road.
Cannabis Cures Anxiety & Depression
Claiming any medicine can cure mental illness is dangerous. A healthy mind requires a myriad of pieces: therapy, exercise, nutrient dense foods, solid social connections, community involvement, personal awareness, and more.
Cannabis has a role in treating some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression. At the moment, there are some small-scale studies on people, showing CBD, in particular, may reduce social anxiety and has shown some success in treating depression. This is really one of those cases where you need to speak with a cannabis doctor or cannabis specialist (educated bud tender or cannabis pharmacist). Psychoactive components may worsen anxiety and certain terpene profiles will treat the symptoms of depression and anxiety better than others. Find someone who knows what they are talking about.
Cannabis Cures Arthritis
There is actually quite a bit of solid, if preliminary, information about cannabis for inflammation and pain, both common aspects of arthritis. And the anecdotal evidence presented thus far is so promising that the Arthritis Society is funding research into the possibility that cannabis is able to reverse joint damage is arthritic patients! Stay tuned for that result.
Cannabis Reverses Alzheimer’s
Some research into cannabis for dementia has created positive results for Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of neurological degeneration. In a 2014 Brazilian study, CBD was able to clear toxic metals from the brain for rodents. This accumulation is thought to be one of the triggers for dementia, and CBD is acting as a neuroprotectant in this case.
Another study found that THC, applied to neurons in the lab, can block the formation of amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of rapid cognitive decline in Alzheimer patients.
Image credit: Designua
There is no doubt that cannabis is a useful medical compound, but for cannabis to achieve the same credibility as conventional medicine, and to then be willingly prescribed by all doctors, it must be put through the same rigorous testing.
Despite the history of cannabis as an illicit drug, rigorous scientific research, using human participants, is getting underway. Israel is at the forefront of medical cannabis research, and Canada will likely follow with open access to the plant. Even in the U.S., some of the restrictions are falling with allowing greater access to cannabis for research purposes. With these regulations opening up, the evidence found in laboratories and animal studies can be put through extensive clinical research. And then, you’ll have your cure.