Cannabis cures cancer. So goes the viral claim, which like most Internet-borne beliefs, is misguided, unfounded and potentially dangerous; and fueled by hope, desperation and frustration.
There's no shortage of "evidence" online. Glossy websites like www.cureyourowncancer.org offer competent-sounding (look, big words!) solutions while sites like Alternet and YouTube offer an anti-mainstream-media forum for testimonials.
Before the stoning begins, here's a thing: Cannabis has potential. Several studies listed on the National Cancer Institute's website indicate there's a possibility that cannabinoids — a group of compounds found in cannabis species — may have antitumor effects. Concentrated cannabinoids are undergoing some testing, the institute indicates, but haven't been scientifically validated as pain or nausea treatments, let alone cancer cell killers.
Donald Abrams, of the University of California San Francisco, has been an oncologist for 31 years and a cannabis investigator since 1997. He says the whole premise of cannabis curing cancer was started after Manuel Guzman (who co-wrote a chapter of Abrams' book Integral Oncology) released a study suggesting that cannabis killed brain tumor cells without harming normal brain cells. "That was a hint that [cannabis] may affect, if anything, brain tumors," Abrams said.
That spawned loads of anecdotal evidence and speculation about all sorts of cancer, from melanoma to breast cancer, but "any evidence that it cures cancer is, first of all, epidemiologically unfounded," Abrams said. Most of the anecdotal reports, Abrams added, came from patients who were also treated with conventional cancer therapies. (And, if we're going to base this on anecdotes, let's not forget that pot is widely used — 38 percent of Americans have tried it, according to Gallup — and cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S.)
That's not to say it doesn't have its uses. "Cannabis is a very useful medicine for cancer symptom management," Abrams said, and he doesn't discount cannabis' potential for antitumor effects. "It needs to be studied and we don't really have enough information at this time."
Studying cannabis in the U.S. is nigh impossible, as we know, because a congressional mandate prohibits American researchers from studying the medicinal or therapeutic effects of pot.
That prohibition is an important piece of the thought process that sprung the cannabis-cures-cancer movement. People who are suffering from cancer, or watching loved ones die despite costly, invasive treatments see two things in cannabis: hope, and someone to blame.
There are few things worse than seeing someone you love die from disease. Who can blame people for latching onto the hope that a cure may exist? But a scary and dangerous side effect of a belief so certain is that others, learning of their own cancer diagnosis, may forego the scientifically rigorous treatments that doctors and researchers like Abrams have dedicated their lives to.
Equally troubling is the antiestablishmentarianism that permeates the cannabis-cures-cancer culture. We, as a nation, have reason to call for an end to the fed's ridiculous prohibition on medical cannabis (and other schedule 1 drug) research. And perhaps no one has more righteous indignation than someone seeking a scapegoat for an unseen killer. Swinging our aim away from cancer and toward the anti-marijuana powers-that-be may be satisfying, but calling the rest of us "brainwashed" for not trumpeting unscientific claims isn't going to help find a cure.