“Already, the quality of my life has improved, just knowing that I don’t have to rely on narcotics.”
New Hampshire resident Linda Horan, in her own words, is “over the moon.” She is one of the thousands of Americans now “certified” to legally possess marijuana for medicinal purposes. Horan is also battling end-stage lung cancer — a disease that has grown rapidly since her diagnosis in July 2015. The cancer has now settled in her lymph nodes and brain. The symptoms of the disease, combined with chemotherapy, have suppressed her appetite, taken away her ability to get a good night’s sleep, and have dramatically altered her quality of life. Horan, determined not to use narcotics to control her discomfort, says medical marijuana was her only option for relief.
Now, after numerous court battles, Horan was won the right to buy the medicine she says she needs to live life comfortably again.
“The fact that this will stimulate my appetite and prevent me from disappearing into a bag of bones, I’m very happy about that,” she told the Portland Press Herald in December 2015.
Like Horan, many cancer patients across the United States — including those with mesothelioma — are publicly embracing cannabis. But not everyone is on board. Many doctors question the changing legal landscape of medical marijuana because, they say, there are still too many questions than answers.
The Murky Legalities Surrounding Medical Marijuana
The laws surrounding the use of medical marijuana are murky at best.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists cannabis — its scientific name — as Schedule 1 controlled substances. This means marijuana — along with all the other substances that are classified under the Scheduled 1 category — cannot legally be prescribed, possessed, or sold under federal law. But, the use of marijuana to treat some medical conditions, such as lung cancer and mesothelioma, is legal under laws in 23 states. Recreational marijuana, incidentally, is also legal in Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Oregon plus the District of Columbia. Recreational marijuana will also be voted on in Massachusetts later this year, and is expected to pass.
Additionally, there is 1 U.S.-sanctioned “pot garden” — at the University of Mississippi. However, it’s managed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and produces the only marijuana that is available for federally-sanctioned marijuana studies.
Doctors say the tight legal reigns on medical marijuana leaves them in a lurch, especially as more patients come to them requesting cannabis for their cancer treatment.
“Physicians are licensed to prescribe medications by an anti-marijuana federal agency, the DEA, and they are accustomed to writing prescriptions for medicine that have been studied and approved by the FDA,” says Matt Simon, New England Political Director at the Marijuana Policy Project. “Most doctors today are simply unfamiliar with the medicinal uses of cannabis.”
Dr. Steven Pergam, Director of Infection and Prevention at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance agrees.
“People are asking more often about it. They feel more comfortable saying they use [marijuana],” says Dr. Pergam. “But I think we need to use it judiciously. The question is: How do you do that while protecting patients and then giving them access to the potential benefits?”
Medical Marijuana – a Viable Treatment Option for Cancer Patients
Patients battling mesothelioma — a deadly cancer that eats away at the lining of the lungs — as well as other types of cancers commonly suffer from pain and nausea that is caused by either their condition or its treatment. Marijuana can be a much less toxic and addictive alternative to narcotics for pain management. In fact, many patients report that being able to inhale cannabis smoke or vapor instantly relieves their nausea and helps to stimulate their appetite. In many cases, such as the one involving lung cancer patient Linda Horan, a patient’s desire to use cannabis is motivated by a desire to avoid opioid pain relievers and to maintain a reasonable quality of life in the patient’s final months, weeks, and days.
Marijuana has also been shown to improve mood, sense of well-being, and to lessen one’s overall anxiety.
“Cannabis is not a harmless substance, but its harms pale in comparison to many prescription drugs,” says Simon.
Medical Marijuana as a Potential Alternative to Chemotherapy
In a government-conducted study published in 1975, findings showed that cannabis’s primary cannabinoid THC, “slowed the growth of lung cancers, breast cancers, and a virus-induced leukemia in laboratory mice, and prolonged their lives by as much as 36 percent.”
While further government studies on marijuana’s ability to inhibit cancer cell proliferation have since been put on hold, scientists in the private sector have conducted their own research. Independent studies of anti-cancer activities of cannabinoids show particular promise for the following cancers:
- Biliary tract cancer
- Brain cancer
- Breast cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Colon cancer
- Oral cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Skin cancer
- Thyroid cancer
- Uterine cancer
Independent trial studies report that cannabinoids can selectively target and kill malignant cancer cells while ignoring healthy cells, as well as reduce the growth of new blood vessels to cancerous tumors.
While the research is encouraging, the Marijuana Policy Project does not endorse using cannabis as an alternative to chemotherapy.
“There has been some interesting research into the anti-tumor effects of cannabinoids, and we strongly believe this should be further studied,” says Simon. “Additionally, there are anecdotal reports of patients successfully treating their cancers with potent cannabis concentrates, but we would need to see a great deal more evidence before embracing the conclusion that cannabis should be viewed as an alternative to chemotherapy.”
Safe Consumption of Medical Marijuana for Lung Cancer Patients
We know marijuana by its many names: pot, grass, cannabis, weed, hemp, hash, Maryjane, and ganja. But no matter the name, marijuana has the potential ability to provide cancer patients fast-acting relief if it is consumed properly.
“Smoking is obviously not the most healthful way to consume cannabis for any person, especially for a lung cancer patient or someone with a compromised immune system,” says Simon. But according to the Marijuana Policy Project, these patients can still inhale cannabis using a method called vaporization. This involves the use of a vaporizer, which gently heats up cannabis at a low temperature and then releases marijuana’s active medicinal components, such as THC. Experts say inhalation of this “vapor” offers the same therapeutic benefits of smoking but without exposure to harmful toxins.
“When cannabis is consumed orally (including in the form of edible products), the effect can take an hour or more to kick in. However, the effect also lasts much longer,” adds Simon. “Some patients find that edibles work well, but if patients are experiencing either severe nausea or spikes of pain, they may find that inhalation is the most beneficial for treating those symptoms at the moment they occur.”
The Future of Medical Marijuana in the U.S.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) supports the need for more scientific research on the use of medical marijuana for cancer patients. The Society also believes that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the DEA imposes roadblocks on future research and scientific study.
While the future of medical marijuana use in the U.S. is uncertain, slow and steady progress is being made on a state level to give more cancer patients the legal option to choose whether the substance is right for them.
As with all medical decisions, treatment options should always be made between a doctor and the patient, balancing evidence of benefit and harm, and adhering to any laws and regulations that may apply.