Did the National Cancer Institute Say That Cannabis Helps Treat Cancer?

Back in August of this year the USA’s National Cancer Institute quietly released a document entitled ‘Cannabis and cannabinoids – for health professionals’. As they stated themselves in the opening line of said document, its intention was to “provide an overview of the use of Cannabis and its components as a treatment for people with cancer -related symptoms caused by the disease itself or its treatment.”

It didn’t cause too much of a stir in the mainstream press, but was latched onto by the slightly more hysterical sections of the internet. As you might expect, this led to endless variations of the same headline: GOVERNMENT ADMITS TRUTH CANNABIS KILLS CANCER.

But did they?

Not really. What they did do was provide a useful overview of the research, and a handy guide to what we already know – that cannabinoids can kill cancer cells in a lab, but that (mainly due to difficulties in being granted permission to carry out clinical trials), the research is not yet at the point where we can say for sure that cannabis is an effective cancer treatment for humans.

So it was nothing particularly new, but that’s not to say it should be dismissed entirely. The fact that the National Cancer Institute felt comfortable in stating that cannabinoids kill cancer cells at all is a pretty big step.

Plus, what the shouty headlines tended not to point out, was all of the other great bits of information contained within the document. For example, in the section on human/clinical trials, there are a plethora of studies mentioned into the use of cannabis and cannabinoids to treat nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, pain, anxiety, and insomnia.

Not all of the outcomes of those trials were positive, as is often the nature of these things. But what becomes pretty clear when reading the document is that the medical and therapeutic nature of cannabis and cannabinoids are no longer in any doubt. We can use it to reduce nausea, or stimulate appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy – the important questions which are being asked now are more about how we do that.

What combinations of cannabinoids, and at what dose are they most effective? What are the differences when using a synthetic version of a cannabinoid like Dronabinol, compared to delta-9-THC from the cannabis plant, or an endogenous cannabinoid like Anandamide or 2AG?

What I’m trying to say is this: The document released by the National Cancer Institute was important, but not for the reasons a lot of people tried to claim. It’s not an admission that cannabis cures cancer. What it is, is a fascinating insight into where cannabinoid research is right now. What it shows us (and this is really important, if not as eye-catching as ‘cannabis kills cancer’) is that science is moving on from the question of whether or not cannabis can be used medically. That is now accepted for the most part. What we’re seeing now is a shift in research priorities over to ‘how do we utilise this medicine in the most effective way?’.

That’s a big step, and as interest in the topic grows and countries such as the USA begin to loosen the absurd, Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare that scientists are forced to navigate in order to carry out the necessary research currently, we should begin to get a clearer picture of whether or not cannabis really can be a safe and effective cancer treatment for humans. But before that happens, the sad truth is that the research just isn’t there to back up the claims, and all the anecdotal evidence in the world won’t change that from a scientific viewpoint.