Health & Science

What research says about marijuana and cancer

Attitudes about marijuana are changing. Such changes are reflected in legislation that has legalized marijuana in many areas and, in some instances, unofficially decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in other places.

Shifting attitudes about marijuana, or cannabis, may be attributed to various factors, including medical research.

Though research studying the effects of marijuana on recovering cancer patients is ongoing, cancer patients and their families may be curious about the potential for cannabis to assist in their recoveries.

What is marijuana?

Marijuana is a plant that originated in central Asia but is now grown in many parts of the world. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the cannabis plant produces a resin that contains compounds known as “cannabinoids,” which are active chemicals that, when ingested, affect various parts of the human body, including the central nervous system and the immune system.

One active cannabinoid is cannabidiol, or CBD, which the NCI notes may relieve pain and inflammation without making users feel the “high” that other cannabinoids produce.

What are some other potential effects of cannabinoids?

The NCI notes that research has shown that cannabinoids may be able to do more than relieve cancer patients’ pain and inflammation. While additional research is necessary, the NCI says cannabinoids may be able to block cell growth. The NCI points to studies in mice and rats that have shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth and blocking the development of blood vessels that tumors need to grow.

Cancer is marked by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells, so the potential for cannabinoids to block that growth is a significant benefit. In addition, the NCI cites laboratory and animal studies that have shown that cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells while protecting normal cells.

Have cannabinoids been linked to particular cancers?

Studies have shown that cannabinoids may have an effect on various types of cancer, including breast cancer and liver cancer. The NCI notes that a laboratory study of delta-9-THC, the main active cannabinoid in marijuana, in liver cancer cells indicated that the cannabinoid damaged or killed the cancer cells. Another laboratory study of CBD in estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative breast cancer cells showed that CBD caused cancer cell death while having little effect on normal breast cells.

Societal attitudes about marijuana are shifting, and ongoing research regarding its potential benefits in treating cancer may be changing the way the medical community views marijuana as well.