Can Cannabis Oil Treat Cancer?
What is cannabis?
You have probably come across many names for cannabis, including marijuana, hemp, pot, grass and hash. Cannabis has been used by people for hundreds of years, both medicinally and recreationally.
The cannabis plant produces a resin that contains various substances. Some of these may have medicinal value. These substances are known as cannabinoids.
Two main cannabinoids have been identified:
- delta-9-tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC) – it is illegal to use this substance in the UK
- cannabidiol (CBD) – CBD is legal in the UK.
There are some drugs available that are derived from cannabis, for example Sativex, used for multiple sclerosis and Nabilone, used sometimes for sickness caused by chemotherapy. These go through the same processes as any other medicine to be licensed in the UK as a prescribable drug.
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.
Does cannabis cure cancer?
For thousands of years people have used cannabis for recreational, ritualistic and medicinal purposes. In the modern era, the latter property excites a lot of people, and there is no shortage of wild claims about the supposed medical benefits of the plant. Of all the claims, perhaps the most bold is the assertion that cannabis can cure cancer.
Astounding testimonials about cannabis and its derived products shrinking tumours or curing terminal cases are easy to find on the internet. But alluring as these stories are, they tend to be based on misunderstanding, wishful thinking or outright falsehood.
Let’s start by asking what the medical efficacy might be. Contrary to what most people believe, medical uses of cannabis have been widely studied. A 2017 review by the National Academy of Science looked at over 10,000 studies. They found evidence for some applications of cannabis, including managing chronic pain and spasms associated with multiple sclerosis. There was also good evidence that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, can reduce the nausea caused by chemotherapy. Indeed, a synthetic form of THC, called dronabinol, has been prescribed for just this use for decades.
But, crucially, there is zero evidence that cannabis has any curative or even helpful impact on cancer, despite enthusiastic claims to the contrary.
Why then is there such a gulf between public perception and scientific evidence? Part of this is misunderstanding. For example, an often aired claim is that high-dose THC kills cancer cells in a petri dish. This is true, but not very meaningful.
Killing cells in a dish is extremely easy; you can do so with anything from heat to bleach. But effective anti-cancer agents must be able to selectively kill cancer cells in the human body while sparing healthy ones. The reality is that cannabis simply cannot do this.
It’s natural, man
Other cannabis advocates are driven by ideological fixation, most often expressed in a sentiment that cannabis is “natural” and implicitly better than pharmacological drugs. But this is a classic example of an “appeal to nature” argument, and thus rather dubious.
The term “natural” is somewhat vague. If we define natural to mean that which occurs without human intervention, the argument still doesn’t hold. Arsenic, plutonium and cyanide are also natural, yet it would be a poor strategy to binge on these substances. The active compounds of many drugs are themselves discovered in plants, synthesised to control the dose and maximise efficacy. We already have THC-derived medicines, but these do not cure cancer, and neither does cannabis.
Sadly, some cannabis advocates go further, claiming that cannabis’s cancer-curing abilities are covered up by drug companies. This is abject nonsense. Such a conspiracy would be massive and would rapidly collapse.
Given that around half of us will be affected by cancer in our lifetime, a cure would be not only be hugely profitable, even though the patent laws for “natural” products are complicated, it would also garner its discoverer infinite gratitude, financial rewards and scientific honours. The idea that researchers would be callous enough to suppress a cancer cure, and the rewards that would go with it, is ludicrous.
The reality is that cancer is a complex family of disease, and it is unlikely that there will ever be a single cure. Cannabis may be useful for treating some people’s nausea when undergoing chemotherapy, but we can say with confidence that the idea that it cures cancer is a myth.
Cannabis and cancer
There has been a lot of interest in cannabinoids. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabidiol and cannabidiol have been studied to see if they could have any role in the treatment of cancer.
Most of the scientific research has been done in a laboratory. Scientists have found that different cannabinoids can:
- cause a cell to die
- stop cells from dividing
- stop cells from developing new blood vessels.
But they have also found that cannabinoids can:
- damage important blood vessels
- in some situations, encourage cancer cells to grow.
Some studies have looked at whether using cannabis may increase the risk of developing cancer. These have produced different results. Some research has shown that using cannabis may protect against cancer. But other studies have shown an increased risk of cancer.
It is still unclear whether using cannabis has any anti-cancer effects. But there is some evidence that the chemicals in cannabis might help with symptoms such as nausea and pain. For example, some drugs that have been developed using the chemicals in cannabis have been effective in treating sickness caused by chemotherapy, or improving a person’s appetite. But these studies have had mixed results when used in clinical trials. Because of the mixed results, the general feeling of experts is that there needs to be more research into the chemicals found in cannabis and their possible benefit.
Cannabis, particularly cannabis oil, is a popular topic. Understandably, many people want to try anything that may help treat their own, or a loved one’s, cancer – particularly if things aren’t going well with conventional treatments. Cannabis oil is only one of a number of treatments people might come across. Cannabis oil can contain varying amounts of CBD and THC.
If you are thinking about using cannabis oil, there are some important things to keep in mind:
- Buying it online can be risky. One reason for this is because you don’t know what you are getting, for example how pure it is.
- There are side effects of using cannabis oil. THC can increase your heart rate, cause dizziness, hallucinations, paranoia and make you feel ‘stoned’. They may also interact with other drugs.
- The cannabinoid delta-9-tetrahydrocannabidiol (THC) and products that contain THC are illegal in the UK.
CBD in its pure form is not a controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act.
CBD oil does not contain THC and therefore does not have any psychoactive effects. It can be sold in the UK as long as it is sold as a food supplement and the sellers are not making any claim about its medicinal properties.
There are a number of examples where people say that using CBD oil has had a dramatic effect on their health. But these are individual stories and not based on clinical research trials. If you are thinking of using CBD oil, we suggest you talk to your healthcare team.