Marijuana and Cancer
Marijuana is the name given to the dried buds and leaves of varieties of the Cannabis sativa plant, which can grow wild in warm and tropical climates throughout the world and be cultivated commercially. It goes by many names, including pot, grass, cannabis, weed, hemp, hash, marihuana, ganja, and dozens of others.
Marijuana has been used in herbal remedies for centuries. Scientists have identified many biologically active components in marijuana. These are called cannabinoids. The two best studied components are the chemicals delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (often referred to as THC), and cannabidiol (CBD). Other cannabinoids are being studied.
At this time, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists marijuana and its cannabinoids as Schedule I controlled substances. This means that they cannot legally be prescribed, possessed, or sold under federal law. Whole or crude marijuana (including marijuana oil or hemp oil) is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for any medical use. But the use of marijuana to treat some medical conditions is legal under state laws in many states.
Dronabinol, a pharmaceutical form of THC, and a man-made cannabinoid drug called nabilone are approved by the FDA to treat some conditions.
Different compounds in marijuana have different actions in the human body. For example, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) seems to cause the “high” reported by marijuana users, and also can help relieve pain and nausea, reduce inflammation, and can act as an antioxidant. Cannabidiol (CBD) can help treat seizures, can reduce anxiety and paranoia, and can counteract the “high” caused by THC.
Different cultivars (strains or types) and even different crops of marijuana plants can have varying amounts of these and other active compounds. This means that marijuana can have different effects based on the strain used.
The effects of marijuana also vary depending on how marijuana compounds enter the body. The most common ways to use marijuana are in food (edible marijuana) and by smoking or vaping it (inhaled marijuana):
- Edible marijuana: When taken by mouth, such as when it’s used in cooking oils, drinks (beer, tea, vodka, soda), baked goods (biscuits, brownies, cookies), and candy, the THC is absorbed poorly and can take hours to be absorbed. Once it’s absorbed, it’s processed by the liver, which produces a second psychoactive compound (a substance that acts on the brain and changes mood or consciousness) that affects the brain differently than THC. It’s important to know that the amount of THC in foods that have had marijuana added to them is often unknown and getting to much THC might cause symptoms of overdose.
- Inhaled marijuana: When marijuana is smoked or vaporized, THC enters the bloodstream and goes to the brain quickly. The second psychoactive compound is produced in small amounts, and so has less effect. The effects of inhaled marijuana fade faster than marijuana taken by mouth.
How can marijuana affect symptoms of cancer?
A number of small studies of smoked marijuana found that it can be helpful in treating nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy.
A few studies have found that inhaled (smoked or vaporized) marijuana can be helpful treatment of neuropathic pain (pain caused by damaged nerves).
Smoked marijuana has also helped improve food intake in HIV patients in studies.
There are no studies in people of the effects of marijuana oil or hemp oil.
Studies have long shown that people who took marijuana extracts in clinical trials tended to need less pain medicine.
More recently, scientists reported that THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer.
There have been some early clinical trials of cannabinoids in treating cancer in humans and more studies are planned. While the studies so far have shown that cannabinoids can be safe in treating cancer, they do not show that they help control or cure the disease.
Relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
Possible harms of marijuana
Marijuana can also pose some harms to users. While the most common effect of marijuana is a feeling of euphoria (“high”), it also can lower the user’s control over movement, cause disorientation, and sometimes cause unpleasant thoughts or feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
Smoked marijuana delivers THC and other cannabinoids to the body, but it also delivers harmful substances to users and those close by, including many of the same substances found in tobacco smoke.
Because marijuana plants come in different strains with different levels of active compounds, it can make each user’s experience very hard to predict. The effects can also differ based on how deeply and for how long the user inhales. Likewise, the effects of ingesting marijuana orally can vary between people. Also, some chronic users can develop an unhealthy dependence on marijuana.
There are 2 chemically pure drugs based on marijuana compounds that have been approved in the US for medical use.
- Dronabinol (Marinol®) is a gelatin capsule containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that’s approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy as well as weight loss and poor appetite in patients with AIDS.
- Nabilone (Cesamet®) is a synthetic cannabinoid that acts much like THC. It can be taken by mouth to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy when other drugs have not worked.
Nabiximols is a cannabinoid drug still under study in the US. It’s a mouth spray made up of a whole-plant extract with THC and cannabidiol (CBD) in an almost one to one mix. It’s available in Canada and parts of Europe to treat pain linked to cancer, as well as muscle spasms and pain from multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s not approved in the US at this time, but it’s being tested in clinical trials to see if it can help a number of conditions.
How can cannabinoid drugs affect symptoms of cancer?
Based on a number of studies, dronabinol can be helpful for reducing nausea and vomiting linked to chemotherapy.
Dronabinol has also been found to help improve food intake and prevent weight loss in patients with HIV. In studies of cancer patients, though, it wasn’t better than placebo or another drug (megestrol acetate).
Nabiximols has shown promise for helping people with cancer pain that’s unrelieved by strong pain medicines, but it hasn’t been found to be helpful in every study done. Research is still being done on this drug.
Side effects of cannabinoid drugs
Like many other drugs, the prescription cannabinoids, dronabinol and nabilone, can cause side effects and complications.
Some people have trouble with increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure (especially when standing up), dizziness or lightheadedness, and fainting. These drugs can cause drowsiness as well as mood changes or a feeling of being “high” that some people find uncomfortable. They can also worsen depression, mania, or other mental illness. Some patients taking nabilone in studies reported hallucinations. The drugs may increase some effects of sedatives, sleeping pills, or alcohol, such as sleepiness and poor coordination. Patients have also reported problems with dry mouth and trouble with recent memory.
Older patients may have more problems with side effects and are usually started on lower doses.
People who have had emotional illnesses, paranoia, or hallucinations may find their symptoms are worse when taking cannabinoid drugs.
Talk to your doctor about what you should expect when taking one of these drugs. It’s a good idea to have someone with you when you first start taking one of these drugs and after any dose changes.
What does the American Cancer Society say about the use of marijuana in people with cancer?
The American Cancer Society supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids for cancer patients, and recognizes the need for better and more effective therapies that can overcome the often debilitating side effects of cancer and its treatment. The Society also believes that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration imposes numerous conditions on researchers and deters scientific study of cannabinoids. Federal officials should examine options consistent with federal law for enabling more scientific study on marijuana.
Medical decisions about pain and symptom management should be made between the patient and his or her doctor, balancing evidence of benefit and harm to the patient, the patient’s preferences and values, and any laws and regulations that may apply.
The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the Society’s advocacy affiliate, has not taken a position on legalization of marijuana for medical purposes because of the need for more scientific research on marijuana’s potential benefits and harms. However, ACS CAN opposes the smoking or vaping of marijuana and other cannabinoids in public places because the carcinogens in marijuana smoke pose numerous health hazards to the patient and others in the patient’s presence.
Learn how marijuana and drugs derived from the marijuana plant can affect cancer-related symptoms.
Can Rick Simpson Oil Treat Cancer?
What is Rick Simpson oil?
Rick Simpson oil (RSO) is a cannabis oil product. It was developed by Rick Simpson, a Canadian medical marijuana activist.
RSO differs from a lot of other cannabis oils because it contains higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). This is the main psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana that gets people “high.” Other therapeutic cannabis oils tend to contain a cannabinoid called cannabidiol (CBD) and little or no THC. In addition, Rick Simpson doesn’t sell RSO. Instead, he encourages to people to create their own using his methods.
Read on to learn more about the health claims behind RSO and whether it lives up to the hype.
The main claim surrounding RSO is that it treats cancer. After Simpson was diagnosed with skin cancer in 2003, he began applying RSO to the cancerous spots on his face and neck. According to Simpson, the spots healed within a few days.
According to Rick Simpson’s website, RSO is made from a particular type of cannabis called Cannabis indica, which produces a sedative effect that helps the body heal.
In addition to cancer, RSO is said to also treat:
- multiple sclerosis
- high blood pressure
Rick Simpson decided to try cannabis oil after reading the results of a 1975 study that tested the use of cannabinoids in mice with lung cancer. The study found that both THC and another cannabinoid called cannabinol (CBN) slowed the growth of lung cancer in mice.
Since then, there’s been a good amount of research involving cell samples and animal models that look at the effects of cannabinoids on cancer growth.
A 2014 study on mice examined the effects of THC and CBD extracts alongside radiation therapy. The cannabis extracts appeared to increase the effectiveness of radiation against an aggressive type of brain cancer. According to the study’s authors, these results suggest that THC and CBD may help to prepare cancer cells to respond better to radiation therapy.
However, another study involving human cells found that THC actually increased the growth rate of certain lung and brain cancer cells.
Recently, there have been a few early-stage clinical trials involving human participants with cancer. While these studies have shown that cannabinoids are safe to use in cancer patients, they don’t fully demonstrate whether cannabinoids can help to treat or control cancer.
There’s also a case report from 2013 involving a 14-year-old-girl with a specific type of leukemia. Her family worked with Rick Simpson to create a cannabinoid resin extract, referred to as hemp oil, which she took daily. She eventually tried using some other oils from different sources with mixed results. However, the hemp oils appeared to treat her cancer, though she died a little over two months into the treatment from an unrelated gastrointestinal condition. This makes it hard to conclude anything about the long-term effectiveness of cannabis for cancer.
While these results are promising, much larger, long-term studies are needed to fully understand how different cannabinoids and cannabis strains affect cancer cells.
THC is a psychoactive substance, meaning it can produce a range of psychological symptoms, such as:
It can also cause physical side effects, such as:
- low blood pressure
- bloodshot eyes
- slow digestion
- sleeping issues
- impaired motor control and reaction time
- impaired memory
However, these side effects may only last for a few hours and usually don’t pose any major health risks.
The biggest risk associated with RSO is that there isn’t much evidence that it effectively treats cancer. This becomes very dangerous if someone stops following their doctor’s recommended cancer treatment. If the RSO doesn’t work, cancer can continue to grow and become harder and harder to treat, even with conventional methods, such as chemotherapy.
In addition, Rick Simpson advocates for making your own RSO, which carries some risks. First, you’ll need to obtain a good amount of marijuana, which is illegal in some areas. Second, the process for creating the oil is quite risky. If a spark reaches one of the solvents used to make RSO, it can cause an explosion. Further, these solvents can leave behind cancer-causing residue if they aren’t properly handled.
If you want to try using RSO for cancer, it’s best to keep up with any other treatments recommended by your doctor while you use it. You should also read up on medical marijuana laws in your area. If you live somewhere that allows medical marijuana, consider asking for advice on getting a premade oil at your local dispensary.
While there’s some promising research surrounding the use of cannabis to treat cancer, experts are still a long way from having conclusive evidence about which cannabinoids and strains work best. In addition, some research suggests that THC can actually increase the growth of cancer cells. Large human studies are needed before cannabis becomes a recommended cancer treatment. If you’re interested in using cannabis for cancer or to treat the side effects of conventional treatments, talk to your doctor.
Rick Simpson oil is a type of cannabis oil that contains high levels of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana. We’ll discuss how this is different from other medicinal oils. We’ll also break down the claims and research surrounding Rick Simpson oil and other cannabis products for cancer.