Over the past two decades, the medical community has discovered that medical marijuana can treat a startlingly wide range of illnesses ranging from epilepsy to anxiety to chronic pain. Some researchers even believe that cannabis can be used to treat cancer, an illness that is responsible for over half a million deaths a year in the US alone.
As promising as this idea sounds, there are actually very few studies that have examined whether cannabinoids can help treat the symptoms of cancer or even stop the growth of the disease. A team of researchers from Amity Institute of Biotechnology in India recently conducted a meta-analysis of the existing research on cannabis and cancer, and concluded that the results of these preliminary studies are too exciting to ignore.
“Cannabis was extensively utilized for its medicinal properties till the 19th century,” the researchers wrote. “A steep decline in its medicinal usage was observed later due to its emergence as an illegal recreational drug.”
The study goes on to note that even though researchers across the world have spent decades trying to find a cure for cancer, “the utilization of THC and [cannabis] derivatives is still unexplored pharmacologically owing to their 'habit-forming' nature.”
The study begins with an exploration of prior research showing how cannabis-based medications can effectively treat symptoms of nausea and loss of appetite commonly experienced by individuals undergoing chemotherapy. These discoveries led to the creation of several synthetically-derived THC medications, like Dronabinol and Nabilone, which are now legal in many countries.
The study also notes that “for centuries, cannabinoids have been used as analgesics and surgical anesthesia in ancient China, amelioration of childbirth pain in Israel, and also were widely recognized as potent analgesics in Asia throughout the middle age[s].” Recent research has confirmed that these ancient treatments were valid, as cannabis does indeed have analgesic effects in addition to anti-inflammatory properties.
A small, but slowly expanding field of research is finding that cannabis may be able to do far more than treat the symptoms of cancer, however. The study explains that cannabinoids seem to “exert potent [anti-growth] activity and activate various apoptotic mechanisms eventually leading to cell death” of cancer cells found in glioma, an aggressive brain cancer. In one prior study, glioma patients who received a proprietary blend of THC and CBD lived for an average of one year longer than patients who received a placebo.
In other studies, synthetic cannabinoids were found to actually promote the death of cancer cells responsible for certain kinds of blood or prostate cancer. The researchers note that few professionals have looked into the effects of cannabis on breast, lung, oral, or liver cancer. The few studies that have still show promise, however. In one study, THC was found to be effective against a treatment-resistant form of oral cancer. In another, synthetic CBD helped inhibit the invasiveness of breast cancer.
The study concludes that preliminary research has confirmed that cannabinoids may well have the potential to treat — even cure — cancer, but the ongoing prohibition of cannabis is hampering scientists' efforts to thoroughly research these possibilities.
“Research evidences on cannabinoids have suggested tumor inhibiting and suppressing properties which warrant reconsidering legality of the substance,” the researchers wrote. “Studies on [cannabinoid] receptors, in case of cancers, have demonstrated the psychoactive constituents of cannabinoids to be potent against tumor growth.”