Marijuana vs. Cancer: The evidence is growing

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Laurie avocado/wikimedia commons
Laurie avocado/Wikimedia Commons

Researchers at Amity University in India recently produced a literature survey of papers on the use of natural and synthetic cannabis compounds to treat cancer.

They found that dozens of studies have found positive effects and conclude that THC and other cannabinoids should be “exploited” as anti-cancer drugs and for other medical purposes.

Apart from having anti-nausea, anti-pain, anti-anxiety and appetite-stimulating palliative effects for cancer patients going through chemotherapy, THC also shows a “promising role in the treatment of cancer growth, neurodegenerative diseases (multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease), and alcohol addiction and hence should be exploited for potential benefits,” the researchers wrote.

The survey was done by Siddharth A. Shah, Anand Shyamlal Gupta and Piyush Kumar of the Amity Institute of Biotechnology, Amity University, Navi Mumbai. It has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics.

The study is highly technical and can be accessed atcancerjournal.net/preprintarticle.asp?id=263538.

Here are some of the main findings, as highlighted by Kyle Jaeger at the Marijuana Moment website:

• Cannabinoids appear to combat tumor growth and activate various biological mechanisms leading to apoptosis (cell death) of cancer cells from glioma, one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer. At least one clinical trial showed that patients with recurring glioblastoma who were treated with a “proprietary combination of THC and CBD” in addition to a traditional chemotherapy drug had a one-year survival rate of 83 percent, compared with a placebo group’s 53 percent.

• Similar results were observed in some prostate cancer cell lines. There was significant “cell growth inhibition followed by apoptosis” in one cancer cell type in a study that evaluated the in vitro (test tube or cell culture dish) effects of endocannabinoids (cannabinoids found naturally in the body) and the synthetic analog of one of them.

• The survey’s authors found studies in which mice with certain lung cancers that had been treated with THC had a “notable reduction of subcutaneous tumor growth and lung metastasis” of cancer cells, pointing to THC’s “significance as a novel therapeutic molecule in lung cancer treatment.”

• One study found that blood cancer cells treated with two synthetic endocannabinoids activated cell receptors that “mediated apoptosis.”

• An oral cancer cell line that was “highly resistant to anticancer drugs” showed “cellular respiration inhibition” when treated with THC. A conventional treatment option “showed no such effect.”

• In addition to THC, other cannabinoids showed anti-cancer effects. A synthetic CBD compound called 940-CBD was effective in combating the proliferative effects and invasiveness of a particular breast cancer cell line.  

The survey’s authors concluded that research evidence on cannabinoids suggests “tumor inhibiting and suppressing properties which warrant reconsidering legality of the substance.”

“Studies on [cannabinoid] receptors, in case of cancers, have demonstrated the psychoactive constituents of cannabinoids to be potent against tumor growth,” they added.

None of the studies cited were clinical trials. Most of them were studies of cells in test tubes or lab dishes, with a few using mice. Most of them could have been done years, or even decades ago if marijuana research wasn’t blocked by governments.

So, here’s a topic for research in the social sciences: How many millions of lives could have been saved if the folks who brought us the war on drugs hadn’t been able to snuff marijuana research for two generations? And should the deliberate suppression of research into the medicinal uses of marijuana be viewed not just as a crime against science, which it self-evidently is, but as a crime against humanity? Just askin’.

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The latest data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which includes data on marijuana use, is out. It shows adult marijuana use is rising while youth use is falling.

It found that in 2017 (evidently the most recent year for which data is available), 14.5 percent of Americans over the age of 12 had used marijuana at least once in the previous 12 months. For 2002 the number was 10.71 percent, an increase of 35 percent in the last 15 years.

Since 2011, pot use by Americans 26 years old and older spiked from under 5 to 8 percent, and use by young adults aged 18-25 rose from 19 to 22 percent. But use by teenagers aged 12 to 17 dropped from over 8 percent to about 6 percent.

Jean-Gabriel Fernandez, writing at Milwaukee’s Shepherd Express, succinctly explained the trends: “…[I]t appears likely that legal cannabis — being inaccessible to minors through legal means and harder to find on the black market of legal states — has contributed to this decline.”

Which is how legalization is supposed to work.