Cannabis for the cure?

Cannabinoid scientists say marijuana actually fights cancer—but the feds continue to stymie research efforts

Public-health researchers say the federal government is slowing the search for cures to breast, colon, prostate and brain cancers, as well as Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and HIV, because the research involves cannabis.

That’s the takeaway from the 21st annual symposium of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, which was held earlier this month in Illinois. Researchers stacked the program with talks not only about cannabis’s palliative properties but also its curative efficacy. The event, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, was held the same week the Drug Enforcement Administration reiterated its stance that marijuana has no accepted medical use.

“It was really interesting,” said Amanda Reiman, who holds a doctorate from the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare and presented at the symposium. “At the same time [that] the DEA was publicly declaring that cannabis has no medical value, I was surrounded by the most brilliant minds in the world talking about nothing but the medical value of cannabinoids.”

She said the frustration “was something you could feel in the air.”

Reiman researches medical-cannabis dispensaries as community-health providers and considers the use of cannabis a substitute for alcohol and other drugs. It’s a topic of key interest to both the International Cannabinoid Research Society and the National Institute on Drug Abuse because—unlike almost every other drug—the NIDA can completely restrict researchers’ access to cannabis, citing the plant’s danger to society.

That means safe, effective treatments that stem from pot are being held up. Take the case of Sativex, the marijuana-based mouth spray made by GW Pharmaceuticals in Europe that helps patients with multiple sclerosis and is very safe. Sufferers won’t see it in the United States any time soon, because it contains cannabinoids.

According to the abstracts of the ICRS symposium, researchers have found that the molecules in pot can reverse cancer growth. “Mechanisms of the Anti-cancer Effects of Cannabidiol and Other Non-psychotropic Cannabinoids on Human Prostate Carcinoma” reads one abstract title. There are at least a seven such papers this year.

The molecule in pot called cannabidiol, or CBD, has been shown to reduce anxiety and halt the progression of HIV in monkeys, as well as treat Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, according to ICRS research. Cannabinoid researchers are investigating using pot molecules to treat head and neck squamous cell carcinomas.

But these researchers aren’t allowed to progress past animal studies and cannot get their hands on the plant, Reiman said. And it’s driving them crazy.

Since the conference was sponsored by the drug warriors at NIDA, “There was a lot of push-back from researchers in terms of restricting access to these cannabinoids, especially CBD, which is not psychoactive,” said Reiman. “There’s opportunities to cure diseases like cancer, but also neurodegenerative diseases and HIV.”

However, “A lot of NIDA’s mission is to discover the harms associated with drugs of abuse [though not alcohol] and to prevent people from using drugs and to help people who are using them to stop them.

“Nowhere in that mission is it to discover potentially therapeutic benefits for illicit drugs, and that’s why cannabis research falls into the crack,” she said.

It’s unfortunate, because pot may birth the all-star “smart drugs” of the 21st century. The molecules in marijuana stimulate a sort of intracellular Internet called the “endocannabinoid system.” Discovered in the ’90s, the endocannabinoid system runs throughout the bodies of mammals, with a large amount of receptors in the nervous system in the head and gut.

Scientists think pot molecules such as CBD can help facilitate cellular communication, assisting cells in sending signals like “Turn off the inflammation” and “My neighbor is a tumor, kill him!”

“Cannabis seeks out disregulation, like the growth of a tumor, and addresses that problem without interrupting the rest of the body,” Reiman said.

While the federal government still schedules cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic, some 1 million U.S. medical-marijuana patients have embraced the so-called vigilante medicine, as it were. And they’re not turning back, no matter what the federal government does.

“They can’t put the whole plant medical-cannabis genie back in the bottle,” Reiman said. “They just have to recognize that it’s there.”