Does smoking marijuana cause cancer? Are Big Pharma drugs more helpful for cancer patients than medical marijuana? Should cancer sufferers worry about getting addicted to marijuana? The Medical Marijuana Review investigates some of the most common myths relating to marijuana and cancer, so read about the facts behind the fiction.
On September 8, a petition on whitehouse.gov called for Dahlia’s Law, the national legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The law takes its name from Dahlia Barnhart, a two-year-old girl in Tampa, Florida who is suffering from an aggressive form of brain cancer and battling with the pain, nausea, and loss of appetite associated with the illness.
The call has reignited controversy over the use of medical marijuana. As the battle continues, cancer sufferers and the public should be aware of the truth behind the many myths lobbed against medical marijuana.
Claim: Smoking marijuana causes cancer.
Facts: This myth is largely based on the assumption that because smoking tobacco causes cancer, smoking marijuana will too. The chemical composition of the two plants is very different, and the U.S. government’s National Cancer Institute website states that the chemicals in marijuana contain anti-tumor properties. A study suggested the cannabinoids found in marijuana may protect against the development of tumors.
Claim: Modern pills are far more effective against cancer pain.
Facts: The most pronounced side effects of chemotherapy are nausea and a loss of appetite. The study above also found that subjects using marijuana had an increased appetite, and numerous studies have demonstrated that cannabis is an effective tool for controlling nausea.
Conversely, the most common drugs used to treat severe pain associated with cancer – such as morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl, and methadone – all list increased nausea as a side effect. Many also suppress appetites. Studies into the efficacy of marijuana as a primary painkiller have found that a 20mg dose of the delta -9-THC found in the plant were as effective as a 120mg dose of codeine.
Claim: Amotivational Syndrome can be caused by marijuana use by any smoker, but social activity is critical to a patient with a life-threatening cancer.
Facts: Amotivational Syndrome is a lack of interest in social interactions and characterized by a loss of ambition. There is certainly a correlation between marijuana use and Amotivational Syndrome, however it stems from a study that concluded users of marijuana, and more specifically those who began drug use at early age, have lower dopamine levels in the brain. The study goes on to indicate that brain development is occurring at the time. This study shows that dopamine levels are also altered by prescription painkillers such as the variety used in the treatment of cancer pain. The permanence of the dopamine changes that are suspected of triggering Amotivational Syndrome largely depends on the length of time a patient is using marijuana or any other painkiller. There is no increased risk of the syndrome when using marijuana instead of prescription pain relievers, the study found.
Claim: Marijuana is addicting and gives cancer patients another hurdle to overcome once they are in remission.
Facts: The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that roughly 9 percent of marijuana users become dependent. In a 2010 study, it was discovered that 14.5 percent of people treated with opiate-based prescription medications developed aberrant drug use issues. This makes marijuana much less addictive and the treatment required for marijuana dependency is much easier to undergo compared to oxycontin or morphine.
Once myth is separated from reality, it becomes clear that marijuana is not just another unused weapon in the arsenal against cancer pain; it may be the strongest weapon available.
Flickr photo via user Goodiez
Justin King, a former human rights activist, is a journalist and photographer based out of Florida. He specializes in covering news stories outside of traditional national and international narratives.