Is Medical Marijuana Beneficial For Cancer Patients?

Although medical marijuana is not uncommonly used for recreational rather than medicinal use, it has been proposed to benefit patients with serious or chronic illnesses such as cancer. A new study had the goal of determining its value for patients stricken with cancer. The findings were published online on March 17 in the journal JAMA Oncology by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester; and Women and Infants’ Hospital, Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

The study authors note that medical marijuana use is currently legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. As more states approve marijuana use for medical indications, doctors will be asked by their patients for more information regarding the risks and benefits of use. Cannabis has been studied for its use as a treatment in a number of symptoms related to cancer. Therefore, they conducted a review study that focused on the research examining cannabis use in chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, cancer-associated pain, and cannabis as an antitumor agent.

The researchers explain that the effects of cannabis in both normal functioning individuals and those with disease remains in an investigatory phase. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is better researched than the other cannabinoids and their exact mechanisms of action, including how synthetic cannabinoids and THC analogs may interact with receptors and produce effects differently.

Cannabis is known for its antiemetic (anti-nausea) properties, which makes it an attractive treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The medical literature contains numerous studies comparing the antiemetic properties of cannabis and its derivatives to those of other medications used for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Dronabinol and nabilone, both derived from THC are well-studied antiemetics; however, data on smoked cannabis are more limited. With the availability of effective options such as corticosteroids, serotonin 5-HT3 receptor antagonists, and neurokinin-1 (NK1) receptor antagonists for the prevention of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, cannabinoids are only used for patients intolerant of or resistant to first-line antiemetics. There are also no current data comparing smoked cannabis, THC, or its derivatives to current first-line CINV treatment regimens. Therefore, marijuana is not recommended for the management of CINV, and it is not part of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology for antiemesis.

The authors concluded that marijuana may have potential for use as an antiemetic, for intractable cancer pain, and as an antitumor agent. However, much of the data are based on animal data, small trials, or are outdated. Therefore, more research is needed in all areas related to the therapeutic use of marijuana in oncology.