Are our expectations of medical cannabis too high?

Medical CannabisCC: MasterTux at Pixabay

Medical cannabis has rapidly gained traction over the last few years. While it was once the mainstay of naturopaths, an increasing number of medics are welcoming it into their folds. Interestingly, it appears there’s a significant demand throughout Virginia, too. One center that pitched itself as a place where patients could see medical marijuana doctors experienced back-to-back calls from those who couldn’t source it elsewhere.

Here in the UK, we often hear gut-wrenching stories of children who benefit from medical cannabis, but cannot always access it. Parents often resort to smuggling it through airports. Many will also mistakenly turn to hemp oil, which lacks the cannabinoids required to ease conditions such as epilepsy.

While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for its use and a growing number of studies backing said stories up, are our expectations too high?

Medical cannabis: a history

Medical cannabis has a 6,600-year-strong history. That’s hardly surprising, given that herbs have been available much longer than pharmaceuticals.

In 2737 BC, the Emperor of China was turning to the drug to fend off malaria and gout. By 2000 BC, there’s evidence that the Hindus were using it as a “joy-giver,” presumably to keep sad feelings at bay. While the Egyptians boasted of its uses on papyrus, Roman women were using it for labor pains. Arabic scholars were the first to use it for epilepsy in 1000 AD, and by 1798 even Napoleon was turning to it for sedation.

It wasn’t until 1914 that cannabis was declared illegal under the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Fast-forward to 1988 and scientists were discovering the presence of cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

Where medical cannabis works

There’s a lot of evidence to support the use of medical cannabis in certain conditions. The British Medical Journal kindly performed a large appraisal of available studies and neatly categorized the results for everyone to see.

For those who want to keep Alzheimer’s at bay, there’s excellent news: there’s strong evidence supporting the use of medical marijuana. Additionally, it’s an effective treatment for chronic pain and probably far less addictive than drugs such as gabapentin. An astonishing 50% of Crohn’s patients achieved remission and 90% experienced substantial improvements after using the drug.

Some areas lack evidence, though

One area where medical marijuana is routinely touted as a panacea is in cancer therapy. Unfortunately, the same analysis from the BMJ found that although there’s evidence of anti-cancer properties, there’s no real evidence that it works in treating humans. One exception is basal cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer.

Although it’s okay to recognize that more studies focusing on medical cannabis’s use in treating cancer are needed, being aware of its limitations is important. An increasing number of people now choose to reject effective therapies in favor of naturopath’s claims. If there’s no real evidence for a natural treatment working, they need to be aware of this. Just a few glances at social media posts discussing cancer will reveal that not everyone is aware of what the evidence really says.

It’s also important to recognize that medical marijuana affects different degrees of anxiety and depression in different ways. Much like SSRIs such as Citalopram, it can cause an exacerbation in some people.

With that in mind, it’s perhaps time that we encourage a realistic approach to using medical cannabis at the same time as reducing resistance. Although it works well in some areas, it’s certainly not a universal fix for everyone’s health woes.


About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.