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Cannabinoids could be useful for treating cancer - cannabis is not

Cannabinoids could be useful for treating cancer but cannabis is not.

Researchers in Spain have published results in this week’s British Journal of Cancer showing that certain cannabinoids – molecules so-called because they were originally found in cannabis – could hold promise for treating prostate cancer.

So does this mean that smoking cannabis could treat the disease?

Certainly not.  In this paper the researchers were using purified man-made cannabinoids. And they were investigating how to harness the cancer-fighting powers of these chemicals without the mind-bending ones.

Cannabinoids and cancer

Certain cannabinoids, such as THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis, have well-documented mind-altering properties. But other cannabinoids have been known for some years to have biological effects elsewhere in the body. Of most interest to cancer researchers is the evidence showing that they can slow the growth and spread of cancer cells, or even kill them.

For example, Cancer Research UK is funding the work of Professor Chris Paraskeva in Bristol, who is investigating the anti-cancer properties of cannabinoids, as part of his research into the prevention and treatment of bowel cancer.

It needs to be stressed that these studies have all been done with purified cannabinoid chemicals – not cannabis itself, which contains cannabinoids along with a cocktail of other chemicals. There is no reliable evidence to suggest that smoking cannabis can treat cancer.

How do they work?

Cannabinoids affect cells’ behaviour by sticking to receptor molecules on their surface, and triggering a cascade of events within them. There are two main types of cannabinoid receptor, known as CB1 and CB2, although researchers think there may be others out there.

CB1 is mainly found on nerve cells in the brain – so its likely to be the important one when it comes to the mind-altering effects of cannabis.  CB2 is mainly found elsewhere in the body, and is the prime suspect for controlling the other effects of cannabinoids on the body.

In nerve cells, cannabinoids sticking to CB1 receptors  can lead to changes in the signalling pathways (causing the mind-altering and pain-relieving effects of cannabis). We also now know that cannabinoids can trigger other events within the cell, including halting growth or even kick-starting cell death.

The new research

In their recent paper, Professor Ines Diaz-Laviada and her team at the University of Alcala in Madrid studied the effects of two cannabinoids – the catchily named Methanandamide (MET) and JWH-015.  These are synthetic chemicals that don’t occur naturally in cannabis, although they are similar to compounds found in the plant.

The researchers tested the chemicals on different human prostate cancer cell lines grown in the lab, and found that they could slow down their growth and trigger cell death.  An interesting finding, but which of the two cannabinoid receptors is at work?

By using drugs that block either one receptor or the other,  or a genetic technique called RNA interference to ‘knock out’ CB1 or CB2 in turn, the scientists found that the anti-cancer effects of MET and JWH-015 were brought about by CB2.

This is an important finding, because it tells us that it should be possible to develop drugs that target CB2, which will have an anti-cancer effect, but which – crucially – won’t have the mind-altering effects of many cannabinoids.

As a last step, the researchers tested the effects of JWH-015 on mice that had been transplanted with human prostate cancer cells. The chemical helped to slow the growth of tumours, compared with a saltwater control. And blocking the CB2 receptors with a highly-specific drug called SR2 wiped out the effect of JWH-015, proving that it works through the CB2 pathway.

What does it mean for cancer treatment?

Although this work is still at an early stage, it provides a tantalising suggestion that drugs that activate the CB2 receptor could be useful for treating prostate cancer.  There’s still more research to be done before we know if MET or JWH-015 are suitable for testing in clinical trials involving patients – and no guarantee that these trials would be successful.

As part of this research, the scientists also investigated the cellular pathways that cannabinoids activate (or block) when they bind to CB2 receptors on prostate cancer cells. By understanding these cellular responses in greater detail, we might discover new targets for cancer treatment.

So can smoking cannabis treat cancer?

No.  This is a classic fallacy – assuming that because cannabinoids can kill cancer cells in the lab, then cannabis (containing cannabinoids) must be able to treat cancer. Ed has previously written extensively about this, with regard to red wine and cancer.

This research has been done using man-made chemicals that mimic the compounds found in cannabis, rather than unpurified marijuana.  Smoking cannabis, particularly when mixed with tobacco, is likely to increase rather that decrease cancer risk, although the evidence for this is mixed.   And, of course, cannabis is classified as an illegal drug in the UK.



Olea-Herrero, N. et al. (2009). Inhibition of human tumour prostate PC-3 cell growth by cannabinoids R(+)-Methanandamide and JWH-015: Involvement of CB2 British Journal of Cancer DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6605248


Leon Simmons May 10, 2011

Dear Oliver Steiber,
You wrote the following:

(1) “you don’t seem to grasp the obvious real problems of testing cannabis.”

(2) “it would be fair to postulate that some one or thing in a position of authority will authoritively parrot others in authority like people in authority are pure as the driven snow and have some kind of ‘ultimate’ authority to provide truth to their deductive reasoning.
So ‘ultimate’ authority is significantly lacking, so where is your authority?”

(a) I do understand the obvious real problems of testing cannabis
(b) Your last statement is totally incomprehensible.
(c) This forum, in my opinion, is being moderated in a way that I consider unacceptable. I will not participate in any more discussions.

Oliver Stieber May 10, 2011

it would be fair to postulate that some one or thing in a position of authority will authoritively parrot others in authority like people in authority are pure as the driven snow and have some kind of ‘ultimate’ authority to provide truth to their deductive reasoning.

So ‘ultimate’ authority is significantly lacking, so where is your authority?

Oliver Stieber May 10, 2011

Can the action be circumstantial and are trials research actively discouraged into alternatives and can highly addictive medication with horrific side-effects be coerced on patients… Yes, see neuroleptics/ major tranquilizers..

I think a bit of ‘context’ is missing.

Oliver Stieber May 10, 2011

LCMS not LCGM… (or GCMS)

Oliver Stieber May 10, 2011

you don’t seem to grasp the obvious real problems of testing cannabis. The substance comes in lots of forms and is hosts hundreds of chemicals. If scientists want to find out If cannabis treats cancer (which I severely doubt) than they have to isolate the individual chemicals and test them one by one, perhaps mixng them to find interactions. This may take long and cost money but we need to have a proper understanding of the biochemistry before using any drug on real humans. We need to say chemical x treats condition y by doing a and b within cells.

Get 100 kilos of the stuff, extract the oil… homogeneous it… do the test…

I tell you what, go into a pub, mix all the drinks people take that they think are alcohol together in a bucket and see if you can get drunk?

Hell just to make sure you could run them though a LCGM.

they give people prozak etc…., I really don’t think side effects are anything like prozak… and for curing cancer not for something that can be cured by chatting to someone (or occasional Ketamine or not having such a depressing world in the first place)

I’m sure Larenzo would be happy.

leon simmons April 12, 2011

I am aware of all the valuable information given on this website.
However, I cannot discount the forthright advice given by a fully qualified medical practitioner with many years experience treating patients with various cancers. The opinions on your website have also to be respected, but one must not be indifferent to the views of other medical experts — and I, like many others, prefer to keep an open mind.
Best wishes

Kat Arney April 12, 2011

Hi Leon,
There is no scientific evidence to show that Essiac can treat, prevent or cure cancer. Our CancerHelp UK site has more helpful information about Essiac for cancer patients that you may find interesting.

Best wishes,

leon simmons April 12, 2011

There clearly is every good reason to examine any medical benefits of THC as indicated below:
“Cannabis grown for medical tests.”

Thousands of cannabis plants are being harvested at a secret government-approved farm for use in medical research.
The Home Office has granted a licence to GW Pharmaceuticals to grow the plants, which will be used to ascertain whether cannabis can relieve pain and minimise the effects of major illness.
see the BBC link:

I have also been recommended to a product known as “Essiac” by a qualified GP of over 40 years experience.
I have copied and pasted his exact remarks:
“I would like you to get a supply of ESSIAC at the health food store and start Jan taking it right away. It could save her life and at worst prolong it.”
(this from a qualified medical practitioner!)
Best wishes

Kat Arney April 12, 2011

Hi Leon,
Thanks for your comment. As we’ve said in the post above, several scientists around the world are investigating whether the biologically active chemicals in cannabis could be useful for fighting cancer. Although we are aware of Simpson’s work, it is important to base decisions on cancer research and treatment on solid medical evidence, rather than unconfirmed anecdote and hearsay on the internet.

best wishes,

leon simmons April 9, 2011

I find it extraordinary that no mention has been made in these forums about Rick Simpson’s articles on Cannabis oil? There is much anecdotal evidence to support his contention that this oil has benefits in the treatment of cancer. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of testimonals from people who have apparently been cured or advantaged by taking this ‘medicine’. We all know that it is an illegal substance, but medical authorities should not shy away from investigating the positive claims that are swamping the internet. There appears to be an ostrich mentality demonstrated by the medical profession who appear not to want to examine or discuss the possibility that this cannabis oil may have some virtue in the treatment of cancer. The method of manufacture of this substance is demonstrated on the internet in great detail and can easily and safely be copied by any competent chemist.
Will someone with medical expertise please explain why there is silence on this issue?

Michael Vipperman December 24, 2009

You contrast untested plants with heavily tested medicines in response to me suggesting that the plant should be tested?

Your equivocation of herbalism with homeopathy is also bad. I agree with you that homeopathy is fundamentally flawed and generally useless, but have seen the obviousness of its silliness used as a way of making everything outside of the mainstream sound bad, even when the things being discussed bear no relationship to homeopathy. If you’re just trying to argue that people are easily duped, well then I agree with you, but if you think that herbalism is all as bad as homeopathy then you’ve been very badly educated.

Isolated chemicals are more reliable and therefore can be used to create profound changes with a known level of risk. This is extremely beneficial, and why I agree that synthetic medicines certainly have their place.

Many herbs, however, can be prepared by the individual and used regularly at almost no cost, without having to rely on anyone else, and used as part of a diet for general benefits. Many spices, for example, are antimicrobial, so a well made curry can help keep you from getting sick, and teas can be made with a wide variety of readily available and inexpensive herbs to help with basically anything you want. No doubt you’d complain that “placebo effect” comes into play here, which I would agree with, but assert that the point is there’s an effect. And many herbs/spices have been shown scientifically to have more than just a placebo effect.

What I’d generally recommend to people is to use herbs/spices as a primary source of health care when you’re not feeling 100%, and then to resort to more powerful medicines when something more extreme is necessary. Each has its place.

Cancer, obviously, is a pretty extreme condition, and I absolutely would never recommend that anybody take cannabis exclusively to manage it and avoid other treatment… but if taking it could have some benefit, then why not let them have it in addition to whatever else is deemed necessary? Why does it have to be an all or nothing thing?

Regarding humans responding to chemicals, again, I’m well aware of this stuff. I like to direct the people you still seem to think I’m one of to the Royal Society of Chemistry’s offer of one million pounds to whoever can put any “chemical free” product into the hand of the chairman (electron beams I think we decided wouldn’t count, and if you were able to produce neutronium, he probably wouldn’t mind giving you the payout).

Here’s something for you, though: look at the use of ginger and hot peppers in treating throat infections and colds. We can experience their mode of action quite directly: chew some raw ginger and you’ll see what I’m talking about. That burning sensation helps to kill microbes in the throat — try it next time you’ve got a sore throat. Peppery food, we know from experience, makes our noses run. That is how we experience the sinus being cleaned out. Again, try eating a big bowl of spicy soup next time you’ve got a head cold, and see how good you feel after.

Could the effect of ginger and hot pepper be explained in chemical terms? Of course! Could capsules containing extracts from ginger and hot pepper, when swallowed, produce the same benefit? Not at all, because they’re basically working topically. Could we engineer a synthetic equivalent which we could put drops of in the mouth to produce the same effect? Well sure, but why the hell would we bother, when ginger and hot pepper are readily available, inexpensive and damn tasty?

Mark December 24, 2009

And on evolution. An organisms behaviour is what makes it better at surviving, it has nothing to do with being selfish or not. If altruism benefits survival (which appears to be the case with humanity thankfully) than the organism will behave altruistically.

The genes within us are only interested in copying themselves and have created millions of amazing ways to do this, hence millions of species we see today.

I can only make guesses on why thc evolved, maybe to stop animals eating them, maybe to block uv rays… Maybe a bit of both. I’m inclined to believe to stop animals eating them… But than again mammals getting the munchies probably doesn’t help cannabis plants, but than again maybe giving the animal the munchies makes the animal eat more leaves poisoning them…. What a minefield.

I’ll stick to biochemistry, less speculation involved

Mark December 24, 2009

Go to the pub med website and tap in ‘cannabinoids & cancer’ and than tell me that nobody wants to research cannabis and possible effects on cancer. Basic economics tells us that the company or institution that cures cancer will be very very VERY rich, or if not a profit making organization will have the best advert of the century.

And I find peoples lack of biochemical understanding makes them assume wrongly that taking untested plants over heavily tested medicines is superior. Homeopathy is my favourite example of this, as people are quite literally buying water. Perhaps sometimes it is, but we need to isolate the chemicals in the plants that do the good job to make safe and practical medicine. We are chemical machines that respond to specific molecules. People say things like ‘it’s got chemicals inside it so must be wrong’ without really know what they are talking about.

That’s why the only way to effectively use cannabis is to painstakingly pin point the properties within in and than we may be able to market it on a mass scale.

It is totally unethical to prescribe a drug that makes you high when with a bit of work we can take that element out of the equation. perhaps in some instances (like chronic pain) we may want the psychoactive effects, but not sll the time.

In a perfect world we could isolate the particular chemicals that perform different jobs out of cannabis and exploit it that way.

And I agree with you on the problem of drug companies only interested in profits. In my opininion this is why a cure for aids us a long way off as aids sufferers are all poor, but on the flipside a cancer cure is massively profitble. Also remember the government does fund a lot of reesearch also in the public interest so we don’t need to completely dispair.

Michael Vipperman December 22, 2009

“Did you know it’s highly likely cannabis plants (like coffee beans) developed psychoactive properties so they would not be eaten. This should give pause for thought. We do not know the long term effects, most notably the psychological effects of cannabis so let’s wait for the evidense to come in before we start treating patients on the oncology ward with pot cakes for lunch”

Hm, this betrays an outdated conception of evolutionary biology on your part. Basically it relies on the “nature red in tooth and claw” fallacy wherein we assume every creature as acting exclusively for its own good to the detriment of those around it. In a great many cases, this is not true. From what I recall, the best theory as to the role of cannabinoids in the plant actually has more to do with their sensitivity to ultraviolet light than their psychoactive properties. Not being a botanist I can’t say I understand it completely, but apparently THC in some way protects the plant against harmful effects of UV rays?

This doesn’t say much in favour of any one position here, but I disagree with your use of scare tactics and thought I’d point out the mistake.

In other news, you ask for evidence that cannabis is safe. Instead, I’ll provide my best understanding of the ways in which it is UNsafe.

1) When smoked, cannabis can lead to bronchitis, throat irritation and decreased lung capacity.

2) THC potentiates a variety of other drugs, including alcohol, meaning that if it is combined with other drugs there is a risk of experiencing effects more profound than what was anticipated. With alcohol in particular, if the cannabis is smoked after the user is already drunk, this sometimes leads to vomiting.

3) Some users experience anxiety and/or paranoia.

4) It is considered very bad manners to not share your joint/pipe with those around you, but doing so could lead to transmission of viruses such as cold and flu.

That’s the most of it, really. It’s not a clean slate but it’s also not that bad. Then there’s the old “correlated with schizophrenia” thing, which recent studies seem to be suggesting actually has more to do with self-medication, and a couple other similar things.

On the other hand, you suggest I think of it as a wonder drug that can treat anything… which I don’t. Here are the things for which I might consider recommending it:

1) As an anti-emetic, particularly for types of nausea that don’t have to do with digestion particularly.
2) As an anti-inflammatory, particularly for sore joints caused by exercise.
3) As a stress-reliever and safer alternative to alcohol for someone seeking inebriation for whatever reason.
4) To help with neurogenic pain (ie, not pain caused by an injury).
5) As an appetite-stimulant for someone who isn’t eating enough.

Then there’s its use as an anticonvulsant and in treating a variety of specific diseases — glaucoma, MS, etc. That it may also help various types of cancer is also very interesting, but I’m not sure that enough is known yet to simply start recommending it to people. There have been quite a number of promising studies, however, enough that I think clinical trials using the plant are clearly justified.

My position vis-a-vis this blog post is just that the plant should not be ruled out of the equation. Everything so far seems to be indicating that it’d be effective, but nobody seems willing to actually do the tests necessary to prove it. It’s just this giant elephant in the room sitting there while reductionist scientists obsess over finding a way to sell a pill which has some but not all of the same properties. That’s not good science, nor is it good medical practice, and it feeds into preconceptions that the “alternative” community already has about reductionist science, such as that it’s all about profit, and that just worsens the dichotomy I tried to explore a little in the other post.

Michael Vipperman December 22, 2009

“you ate obviously someone who is of the completely unjustifiable belief that cannabis is a wonder drug. I bet you say something like “it’s natural”. ”

Hm, you’re making a lot of assumptions about me that aren’t true, but I understand why you might be making them so I’m not offended. Rather than indulge in “not-uh!” style reactions, I’ll try to briefly explain my perspective:

What we have here is a dichotomy that is very problematic and reflects to some extent the way that our society is arranged. On the one hand we have a group of people who believe that things must be “natural” in order to be safe or beneficial, and on the other hand we have people who hold fast to reductionism and believe that it must be possible to isolate “the active chemical” and reproduce it in the laboratory, and that everything else is imprecise, based largely on ignorance and superstition, and generally backwards/unfortunate.

The former group, to which you erroneously assumed I belong, falls into the trap of reifying “nature.” I won’t get too into it, but you’re probably familiar with the relevant critiques here: plenty of plants are poisonous, it’s impossible to clearly define what is “natural” to begin with (honey is a good example, and the comparisons between extractions and synthetics which may in fact be identical are always fun), placing humans in a separate category from “nature” to begin with is foolish, etc.

The latter category, within which, by opposing the former, you place yourself, also has its limitations. It tends to reduce individual agency by requiring adherence to standards with which the vast majority of people lack the resources necessary to comply. It tends towards one-size-fits-all solutions which often gloss over the nuances of specific situations. It necessitates reliance upon an industrial complex which may cause ecological devastation (an Oneida elder told me about an incident where word of a plant that a particular First Nation uses as medicine, but always takes certain precautions to preserve the population, got to a pharmaceutical company who came in and harvested the entire population so that they could commodify it). It also discourages the use of mild substances (such as spices) which may have long term benefit if taken regularly (example, as advice for treating a cold: make tea with ginger, cinnamon and lemon balm, and eat hot, spicy soup with fresh basil. A reductionist would probably balk at this recommendation, but if you gave someone capsules containing extracts from all the above plants, I guarantee it wouldn’t work as well).

In short, both the “nature-based” perspective on health and the reductionist perspective are severely flawed. The fact is that plants and synthetics both have particular uses, and it the best thing to use in a specific instance depends on a great deal of contextual information, as well as the specific plant and specific medicine in question. A couple posts up I mentioned belladonna as an example; it’s perfectly effective as an anti-emetic, but because it’s very toxic and nearly impossible to dose accurately, diphenhydramine is far safer. On the other hand, it’s far easier to take massive amounts of synthetic amphetamines than fresh khat bark, and that makes the plant a good deal less dangerous in general.

With cannabis, the point is that the synthetics made thusfar have been far too expensive, and generally agreed upon by patients to be inferior for treating their conditions than the raw plant matter. That it’s “natural” doesn’t make this true, it’s simply what we know from talking to people who use it medicinally and who have tried synthetic preparations. What’s the point in charging more for something that works less? The reductionist impulse is to find “the active chemical” and provide just it… but in this case that’s actually counterproductive and wasteful, considering the plant is not terribly dangerous and works just fine by itself.

Mark December 20, 2009

I would like to add I smoke the odd joint, but does not for a second mean I can tell others of the alkedged health benefits ofcannabis with zero evidence.

Evidence is the key word here, and so far the evidence just doesn’t support wonderoua claims of cannabis and cancer. If you understand the chemistry of cancer you will see it is difficult to make such claims. Does thc fix DNA? Doubtful. Does thc kill cancer cells? Perhaps certain types, but definately not all. Cancer has literally hundreds of causes in cells, and each individual cause needs a completely separate approach to stop it. In sone cases we want to stop proteins, in others the cause is the failure of a protein. It’s simply fat too complex to make wide sweeping statements about cannabis and cancer

Mark December 20, 2009


you don’t seem to grasp the obvious real problems of testing cannabis. The substance comes in lots of forms and is hosts hundreds of chemicals. If scientists want to find out If cannabis treats cancer (which I severely doubt) than they have to isolate the individual chemicals and test them one by one, perhaps mixng them to find interactions. This may take long and cost money but we need to have a proper understanding of the biochemistry before using any drug on real humans. We need to say chemical x treats condition y by doing a and b within cells.

Your dosage comments previously are ridiculous. Can’t you see the obvious problems that dosage needs to be controlled properly for any drug yo be effective. A doctor can’t tell a patient “just take it till you get high than that’s the dose” the patient needs to know precise quantifiable doses. They need to know what time to take etc etc. And how do you know that THC is completely safe? Please point me to evidense

you ate obviously someone who is of the completely unjustifiable belief that cannabis is a wonder drug. I bet you say something like “it’s natural”. Did you know it’s highly likely cannabis plants (like coffee beans) developed psychoactive properties so they would not be eaten. This should give pause for thought. We do not know the long term effects, most notably the psychological effects of cannabis so let’s wait for the evidense to come in before we start treating patients on the oncology ward with pot cakes for lunch

Michael Vipperman September 8, 2009


Read the link. Lots of info, and admirably balanced. The section on “why researching cannabis is difficult” is unconvincing, however.

“There are difficulties in researching the effects of cannabis. Many people who smoke cannabis also smoke tobacco. And users of cannabis often mix it with tobacco. This can make it difficult to know whether it is the tobacco, the cannabis, or both that has caused a cancer.”
– This depends on where you’re doing the research. Here in Canada, it’s actually fairly uncommon for people to mix it with tobacco, and I imagine that tobacco smoking isn’t the sort of thing study participants would feel the need to hide from the researchers.

“The amount of THC in cannabis also varies. Some of the cannabis available today is much stronger than it was 20 years ago. These versions contain more THC.”
– I don’t see how this is relevant. Inconsistent dosage is typically a rephrasing of concern regarding safety and efficacy, but psychoactive effects are self-limiting: when pot was weaker it was common for people to have a large joint all to themselves, whereas now a single joint is sufficient to get several people high. Dosage is controlled by the psychoactive effects, which typically are not pursued once the desired level is reached (unlike alcohol). Also, splitting it into “safety” and “efficacy,” efficacy of a “naturally” controlled dosage is precisely what you’d be testing here, so the expectation that it wouldn’t work means you’re expecting poor results, not that the test (which may in fact produce GOOD results if anyone actually bothered to do it) shouldn’t be done. And safety… there is no risk of THC overdose, so that’s a non-issue.

“Another difficulty researchers have is in recruiting people who smoke cannabis into studies. Because cannabis is an illegal drug in many countries, people may be reluctant to take part in research. And if they do agree to take part, they may not say how much cannabis they actually smoke.”
– This is a legitimate methodology concern, and it’s quite unfortunate. But that a plant which *may treat cancer* and has very few negative effects at all (some allergies, occasional cases of bronchitis, some mixed data about skitzophrenia) is illegal in the first place is objectionable. For a respected company to openly do research with it, without engaging in the normal partisan quibbling about the legal issue, would lend legitimacy to those who are calling the law unjust, which at the same time educating people on its actual potential risks and benefits.

I’ve spoken to numerous people who’ve taken synthetic cannabinoids — Marinol and Cesamet in particular. All believe that those drugs are vastly inferior to the plant matter, and the common belief is that the presence of MANY cannabinoids — not just one or two — in the plant is responsible for this. Since the plant seems to be a better treatment for pain, glaucoma, nausea, etc, than synthetics, and is an order of magnitude less expensive, shouldn’t it be the baseline test of efficacy? A standard against which to test any synthetic: is this drug more effective, less effective, or just as effective, as the plant matter? If it’s more effective than of course it should be produced en masse… but if it’s less, that’s a horrible waste of money.


Kat Arney September 8, 2009

There’s more about cannabis and cancer on our CancerHelp UK website:
It explains in much more detail about the mixed evidence for cannabis and cancer, and the problems of doing research into cannabis.

Michael Vipperman September 5, 2009


Thank you for your thoughtful response. That you chose willow bark as the example is remarkable, as it’s precisely the example that I’ve been using lately in conversation with friends. The plant vs synthetic issue is particularly interesting to me… in some cases, it seems a synthetic is clearly the better choice. Diphenhydramine instead of belladonna to treat nausea and allergies, for instance: both will probably have the desired effect, but the toxicity of the chemicals involved means that it’s extremely important to control the dosage, and the danger of eating belladonna compared to swallowing Benedryl outweighs whatever other benefits using the plant source might have.

With willow bark, however, I’d argue in the other direction: while standardization (Aspirin) means that dosage is controlled, and the medicine becomes equally available to anybody with money and access to a pharmacy, that transition leads to a loss of connection to the surrounding world. You and I both know that willow bark can be used to treat a headache… but let’s face it, most people in society don’t, and they don’t because they don’t need to, as they can just get Aspirin. I’m uncomfortable with this transition and loss of public knowledge, although I acknowledge that this type of concern may not be salient to somebody of your profession. I’m simply of the opinion that equipping people with the knowledge of how to use things found in their environment to better their lives is generally going to lead to a healthier population, and, in the light of sensationalistic (and sometimes false) claims regarding the benefits of various plants, I feel that confirming or disconfirming the medical benefits of herbs and the like should be a responsibility of the medical establishment — rather than just promoting a single kind of treatment.

Regarding “mind-bending” effects, the majority of those who experience them find them to be generally positive and do not suffer any kind of adverse effects. There are certainly cases where they would want to be avoided… subject has bad experience with them in the past, or maybe a moral objection of some kind, for instance. But if simply providing the plant will be just as effective and no more expensive, it should at least be pursued as an option to give people (that the psychoactive effects can help some people to deal with other facets of their condition is, of course, relevant). And if it is in fact *more* expensive to produce the synthetics, as I expect that it probably is, then the plant, if just as effective, should be the first choice and the pills a backup in case the individual patient reacts badly to the plant.

Bottom line is that, if it’s true that cannabis can treat cancer, or that willow bark can treat headaches, the ethical thing is to make that known — along with data about possible adverse effects and the like. That’s the kind of work that I’m personally trying to do, and to do that, having reliable data from companies such as yours which I can cite is incredibly important.

Has anyone done a metastudy to compare regular cannabis users to the general population in terms of incidence and survival rates for all types of cancer? All I’ve seen is data about head, throat and lung cancer.


Kat Arney September 4, 2009

Hi Michael,

As you point out yourself (and as we mention in the post) it is a fallacious argument to go from “CB2 activators” to “cannabis fights cancer”. There is likely to be a highly variable dose of cannabinoids in natural cannabis. And for obvious reasons, it would be preferable to treat cancer without psychoactive effects – not everybody wants to experience “mind-bending” side effects while they are being treated for cancer.

The experiment you suggest is far from “simple to test” – for example, how would you make sure that people were getting a reliable dose of the drug? And what about all the other contaminants from the plant matter? Much of the research into naturally-based drugs (for example, aspirin, resveratrol and curcumin) relies on purified chemicals, without the risk of confounding – and potentially toxic – contaminants. And chemists can research and tweak the structures of natural molecules to find something even more effective (hence the purpose of using synthetics).

This means that the dose can be controlled, and also the active substance can be given in much higher doses than might be possible from the natural product itself. It is nothing to do with “wanting to have a monopoly on the cure”, but wanting to provide safe, reliable and effective treatments for patients.

The natural world has given us many useful chemicals which are showing great potential in the fight against cancer. Cannabinoids are likely to be another – but in the same way we wouldn’t suggest chewing on a piece of willow bark when you want a dose of apirin, we certainly don’t suggest that cannabis can treat cancer.


Michael Vipperman September 3, 2009

Why is it that eliminating the “mind-bending effects” is considered to be “crucial,” exactly? I’m also curious about why synthetics are being favoured here.

I do sociological research of drug users, and one thing that I’ve found a lot of is suspicion of “big pharma,” generally bordering on paranoia. They think that medical companies want pot to stay illegal because its legality would “cut in on their profits.” I’m resistant to the notion that a group such as Cancer Research UK would allow profiteering to get in the way of doing the research that’s the most likely to aid cancer patients, and I’m sure you’d agree with me. So why is the research being done in this way?

Yes, it is strictly fallacious to go from “things that activate CB2 fight cancer” to “cannabis activates CB2 and therefore must fight cancer,” because, as is pointed out in this article, there are confounding factors. But wouldn’t that be relatively simple to test? I imagine it would be far less expensive to test vapourized plant matter, and then we’d know the answer for sure — an answer which could potentially help millions of people without requiring them to take pharmaceuticals.

Pot users do not trust you and your company because they believe your unwillingness to do this straightforward test demonstrates that you wish to have a monopoly on whatever cure is produced. Please prove them wrong.

Marcia August 21, 2009

Every drug (prescribed or otherwise) has harmful side effects. When I take a drug, I decide whether the side effects are worth the benefits. The same should hold true for smoking cannabis. The patient should be informed of the risks and benefits of use in their own situation and then be allowed to make his or her own decision.

Interrobang August 19, 2009

What I want to know is, who are these crazy people who are adulterating good pot with something as disgusting as tobacco?

mavis August 19, 2009

YES! I read the first paragraph and am excited that smoking cannibliss can cure cancer! GET IN!