Today, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not recognize any medicinal properties associated with the plant – including hemp, which has a maximum of 0.3% of the chemical compound that gets you high. However, there has been more and more evidence from recent scientific research that certain cannabinoids – chemical compounds within the cannabis plant – can help treat many ailments, including cancer.
One of the most commonly studied cannabinoids, cannabidiol (CBD), may be especially beneficial in helping treat cancer. It is scientifically proven to improve signal processing in the brain, control inflammatory and neuropathic pain, and ease anxiety.
Despite cannabis’s illegal state under the DEA and disapproval by the FDA, there are some synthetic pharmaceutical forms of cannabinoids that are approved by the FDA to treat certain conditions, including cancer patients going through treatments:
- Dronabinol – contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that causes psychoactive effects, and is used during cancer chemotherapy to treat nausea and vomiting, as well as by AIDS patients who experience weight loss and appetite loss.
- Nabilone – contains a synthetic cannabinoid similar to THC and is used during cancer chemotherapy to treat nausea and vomiting.
- Nabiximols – contains a whole-plant extract with THC and CBD and is used to treat pain linked to cancer, though it is still being studied and is not yet approved for use in the United States (it is, however, used in Canada and some parts of Europe).
The methods of ingestion for the above drugs are either in capsule form or an oral spray. Although scientists warn against carcinogens associated with smoking any substance, there are some studies that actually show smoking CBD can be helpful in treating nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy because of its fast-acting abilities. In just under 10 minutes, patients can start feeling the medicinal effects.
Because of cannabis’s current Schedule I status, it can be difficult for scientists to study the plant’s properties. However, recent research shows CBD actually slows the growth – and may even cause the death – of certain cancer cells that were grown in a laboratory setting. Other animal studies have shown that CBD and other cannabinoids may also help to stop the growth and slow the spread of some forms of cancer.
A report published on July 30 2018, shows that mice with pancreatic cancer that were treated with both CBD and chemotherapy survived about three times longer than those treated with just chemotherapy. Results from animal studies like these can help provide justification to increase the testing of CBD on humans suffering from cancer in order for us to learn even more, and, most importantly, recommend CBD to more patients who would really benefit from it.
There are not yet many clinical studies of cannabinoids on humans, but in many trials so far, CBD has been successful in treating cancer. Studies also show that patients who use CBD extracts in clinical trials typically do not need as much pain medication. But, it is important to note that CBD and other cannabinoids have not been proven to control or cure cancer – rather, they work as aiding supplements in cancer treatments. With the information we know today, CBD is best used to treat the side effects of cancer treatments and should not be relied on as a sole form of treatment.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has stated that it supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids when it comes to cancer patients, noting the many studies that have shown they can help treat “the often debilitating side effects of cancer and its treatment.”
The Society also supports the reclassification of cannabis from a Schedule I controlled substance in order to make it easier for researchers to study cannabinoids and their medicinal properties.
Despite their stance, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) has yet to take a position on the legalization of cannabis for medical use, citing a lack of scientific research on both the benefits and side effects of cannabinoids. The Society has explicitly opposed the smoking of cannabis in public due to carcinogens that the smoke contains, implying that other methods of intake, such as oral ingestion or topical application, are safer and more medically acceptable forms of treatment.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also says that CBD has the potential to alleviate cancer symptoms and the side effects of chemotherapy. The Institute notes CBD’s ability to lower inflammation and reduce the reproduction of many types of tumor cells. But the NCI, like the ACS, has not yet endorsed the use of any part of cannabis as a cancer treatment.
If the political landscape surrounding cannabis in the United States were to change, scientists could more easily study the medical properties of CBD and other cannabinoids. Because the legal status of cannabis in places like Canada and Europe is more lenient, scientists have been allowed to performed more studies, which have resulted in higher rates of the legalization of both recreational and medicinal use of cannabis. If the DEA were to reschedule cannabis and all of its derivatives to a lesser category, the US may be on the path to enhanced treatment for cancer patients by funding more studies of CBD.