Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Marijuana Cancer Cure Cult

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The Marijuana

Cancer Cure Cult

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds, but some enthusiasts
may be going too far.
January 26, 2010 |
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In his 1971 State of the Union speech, President Richard

Nixon declared war on cancer, prompting passage of the

National Cancer Act, aimed at making the "conquest of

cancer a national crusade." Just four years later, scientists

from the National Cancer Institute published a study

demonstrating that a group

of compounds taken from a common, widely cultivated

plant shrank lung tumors that had been implanted in mice,

extending their survival.

In a world that made sense, this plant and the anticancer

drugs it produced would have been rushed into further

testing, and we'd have known in a few years whether they

had potential as treatments for human cancers. Instead,

research proceeded at a glacial pace, with almost no

further progress till the 1990s. Since then, vast quantities

of lab and animal data have confirmed those early findings,

but studies of these plant compounds in actual human

beings with cancer remain nearly nonexistent.

What got in the way was Nixon's other war, the "war on

drugs." The plant in question was cannabis sativa

-- marijuana -- public enemy number one in that other war,

and discovering that marijuana had beneficial properties

was the last thing the U.S. government wanted to do.

Dr. Manuel Guzman of Complutense University in Madrid,

lead author of the only human study yet published of a

cannabinoid as cancer treatment, puts it slightly more

diplomatically. The lack of immediate followup to those

early reports "remains a mystery to me," he says. Guzman

cites a number of obstacles to human trials, including the

fact that cannabinoids are "still seen by many doctors and

regulatory agencies as drugs of abuse," as well as "lots of

paperwork" and a lack of commercial interest in natural

compounds that can't be patented.

Complicating things further, the relative vacuum created

by the lack of human studies and the hostility of the U.S.

government to the whole question of marijuana's beneficial

effects has left the field wide open for zealots who promote

cannabis as a "cure" for cancer as if it were already a

proven fact rather than a possibility in desperate need of

serious study.

A Protective Effect?

Instead of researching cannabinoids as anticancer drugs,

federal officials have continued to falsely imply that

marijuana causes lung cancer. For example, a 2002

brochure for parents, "Talk to Your Child About Marijuana,"

still available on the Office of National Drug Control Policy

Web site, advises, "Smoking marijuana is as least as bad as

smoking cigarettes."

In fact, the largest, most well-controlled studies have

consistently failed to find an increased risk of lung cancer or

other typically tobacco-related cancers among marijuana

smokers. These include a 65,000-patient 1997 study

conducted at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California and

a 2006 case-control study (in which patients with cancer

were matched with similar patients without cancer to

compare risk factors) from the UCLA lab of Dr. Donald

Tashkin, one of the world's leading experts on the

pulmonary effects of drugs.

In the UCLA study, there was a consistent trend -- albeit

short of statistical significance -- toward lower cancer risk

among even the heaviest marijuana smokers. This was a

surprise to some, given that marijuana smoke contains

many of the same carcinogenic compounds as tobacco

smoke. The researchers wrote:

Although purely speculative, it is possible that
such inverse associations may reflect a protective
effect of marijuana. There is recent evidence from
cell culture systems and animal models that 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and other cannabinoids
may inhibit the growth of some tumors by
modulating key signaling pathways leading to
growth arrest and cell death, as well as by inhibiting tumor angiogenesis. These antitumoral associations have been observed for several types of
malignancies including brain, prostate, thyroid,
lung, and breast.

In an October 2003 review in the journal Nature Reviews:

Cancer, Guzman detailed the extensive body of test-tube

and animal research showing that cannabinoids inhibit

tumors of the lung, uterus, skin, breast, prostate and brain

(including gliomas, the type of tumor that killed Sen.

Edward Kennedy). He also noted: "Cannabinoids have

favorable drug-safety profiles and do not produce the

generalized toxic effects of conventional chemotherapies.

Cannabinoids are selective antitumor compounds, as they

can kill tumor cells without affecting their non-transformed


Such selectivity is exactly what you want in an anticancer

drug. The reason chemotherapy can be so awful is that most

chemo drugs aren't selective enough; they kill cancer cells,

but are also toxic to healthy cells, leading to vomiting, hair

loss and other miseries.

The 'Cure'?

Nearly all of the evidence about cannabinoids as anticancer

drugs comes from lab studies using cell cultures or animals

with experimentally implanted tumors. The annals of

medical research are littered with drugs that looked

promising in the lab but didn't work in people. Still, that

doesn't stop some enthusiasts from touting cannabis as a

cure for cancer, sometimes making even open-minded

scientists and medical marijuana advocates nervous.

When I worked at the Marijuana Policy Project, we

received several impassioned emails imploring us to tell

Sen. Kennedy that cannabis could cure his brain tumor.

Others touted Canadian Rick Simpson's "Healing Hemp

Oil" Web site, Phoenix Tears.

In a series of videos, letters and other materials on the

site, Simpson -- who has had repeated run-ins with law

enforcement over his cannabis-related activities and was,

according to a Dec. 14 posting, staying in Europe

indefinitely to avoid arrest -- promotes what he calls

"hemp oil" as a "simple herbal cure for cancer. I have

used these extracts

to cure three areas of skin cancer on my own body, also,

I have cured cancers for others." Simpson also touts hemp

oil for pain and a variety of other conditions.

The site includes video and written instructions for making

the preparation. The procedure involves using a solvent

such as naphtha or isopropyl alcohol to extract the THC

from marijuana, then boiling off the solvent using a rice

cooker to leave a thick oil with a high THC concentration.

Simpson warns readers away from conventional cancer

treatments: "Hemp oil has a very high success rate in the

treatment of cancer, unfortunately many people who come

to me have been badly damaged by the medical system

with their chemo and radiation etc. The damage such

treatments cause have a lasting effect and people who

have suffered the effects of such treatments are the

hardest to cure."

He offers numerous stories and testimonials describing

seemingly hopeless cancers cured by hemp oil, but no

controlled, scientific experiments.

And critics find plenty to worry about. First, they note,

despite warnings and disclaimers on the site, the

procedure for making the medicine is risky. Mitch

Earleywine, author of Understanding Marijuana and a

professor of psychology at the State University of

New York at Albany, calls the do-it-yourself procedure

"outrageously dangerous. Even if you don't light yourself

on fire, you may end up with leftover solvent that would

slowly poison the healthiest of us."

There's a reason scientists don't base conclusions on

anecdotes, Earleywine explains. "Cancer remits

spontaneously sometimes, which is a good thing.

Unfortunately, it leads to superstitious conditioning so

people think that whatever they did last must be the

source of the cure. Especially with some cancers, where

a great many people die, all the spontaneous recoveries

associated with hemp oil get remembered while all those

that don't either get forgotten or attributed to the horrors

of the disease."

Earleywine stresses that he is not dismissing the possibility

that some form of cannabis might be an effective cancer

treatment. "THC killing tumors is actually true," he says,

"but we're not at the human stage [of research]."

Simpson is dismissive of critics who cite the lack of human

studies. "How are you going to do controlled studies when

it is illegal in Canada to do so?" he said in an emailed

response to questions.

In fact, researcher Mark Ware of McGill University in

Montreal has done clinical trials of medical cannabis in

Canada, including a study comparing several different

cannabis preparations in use by chronic pain patients.

Simpson calls the idea of spontaneous cancer remissions

"nonsense." As for possible risks of his preparation, he

argues, "It is irresponsible to give people liver toxic

chemicals, chemotherapy and radiation, so if they are

talking about irresponsible why do not look at their own

medical system? It is not irresponsible to save peoples

lives with a harmless natural, non-addictive medicine

from nature. If you watch our documentary, you will see

that I use a simple water purification process to get rid

of solvent residue. I have been ingesting oil for over

eight years and I have supplied this oil to thousands of

people who also have experienced no problems with

solvent residue."

While cautious about reports that are "solely anecdotal,"

Paul Armentano, deputy director and resident science

wonk at the National Organization for the Reform of

Marijuana Laws, lays blame for the lack of proper data

at the foot of prohibition. "It is a shame that lone

individuals must try and engage in the work that the

medical establishment should be undertaking, yet have

turned a blind eye to," he says. "Unfortunately, what we

have is speculation rather than hard science, and we only

have the politicization of cannabis to blame."

The Long and Winding Research Road

The one human study of a cannabinoid cancer treatment

published thus far was conducted by Dr. Guzman and

colleagues and published online in June 2006 by the

British Journal of Cancer. The scientists infused a THC

solution directly into the tumors of nine patients with

glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly form of brain cancer,

for whom standard treatments had failed. This small

pilot study wasn't aimed at proving that THC worked,

simply that it was safe to administer to these otherwise

doomed patients .

It proved entirely safe, with no negative effects attributed

to the THC and no "overt psychoactive effects." And while

there were no miracle cures, there were glimmers of

possible efficacy. In one patient with an "extremely

aggressive" cancer, tumor growth was curbed for nine

weeks. In another, symptoms improved, although tumor

growth was not stopped. And in some cases, lab tests with

cells taken from tumor biopsies showed that THC

decreased the number of viable cancer cells.

Guzman and colleagues noted that THC may not be the

best cannabinoid to use as a cancer treatment, as others

have been shown more potent in lab tests. And while the

direct infusion technique delivered a high THC

concentration to specific locations, it may not have

reached all parts of these large tumors.

Still, the results were positive enough that the researchers

urged further tests, including studies of cannabinoids in

combination with other cancer drugs. Guzman is hoping to

do more studies, but notes that with all the bureaucratic,

procedural and financial hurdles, "The way ahead is long

and winding."

But if more human studies aren't happening yet, lab work

continues to produce intriguing results. Just this month,

the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics published a

new study providing the first evidence that combination

cannabinoid therapy is more potent than using THC or

other cannabinoids as single agents.

Sean McAllister and colleagues from the California Pacific

Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco tested

THC, cannabidiol (CBD) and both drugs combined on

human glioblastoma cell lines. In two of the three cell lines

tested, the THC/CBD combination proved the most potent

-- more so than would be expected by just adding the

anticancer effects of the two drugs together, suggesting

a synergistic action.

"Combinations, compared to individual drug treatments

with specific cannabinoid-based compounds, may represent

an improvement for the treatment of patients with

glioblastoma and perhaps additional cancers," McAllister

says. "It is also possible that other constituents of

Cannabis sativa which are not structurally related to

cannabinoids could improve antitumor activity when


That leads to an obvious question: Why not use the whole

plant -- whether smoked, vaporized, or in some sort of

extract like Simpson's? "In regard to brain cancer, it is

highly unlikely that effective concentrations of either

Δ9-THC or CBD could be reached by smoking cannabis,"

McAllister says. "In regard to additional cancers, I feel

defined formulations and dosing will be needed in order

to effectively treat patients."

McAllister says his team is moving toward "clinical trials

in both breast and brain cancer, but it is a slow process."

The next step, he says, will be to try to replicate his

test-tube results in animals. "No agency in the U.S. would

allow me to move forward to clinical trials without some

form of proof of concept data in a relevant preclinical in

vivo model."

That may be an accurate assessment, but Armentano

thinks it's too cautious "given the long established safety

of cannabinoids, including THC which is already a legal

pharmaceutical, and CBD, which is non-psychoactive, is

not a central nervous system depressant and has no risk

of overdose."

Not only is there abundant evidence that cannabinoids kill

cancer cells, Armentano says, "Investigators now even

understand the mechanism of action; in other words, they

know how and why cannabinoids kill cancerous cells and

halt the spread of malignant tumors."

The question of whether these cannabis compounds can

cure cancer in people, he says, "ought to have been already

answered decades ago."

Bruce Mirken is a San Francisco-based writer and media

consultant who served as director of communications for

the Marijuana Policy Project from 2001 to2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great read. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did you guys know that some chinese hacker had hacked twitter yesterday again.