Marijuana as Medicine
Marijuana has been used in herbal remedies for centuries. There are two main biologically active components in marijuana: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). A number of studies of marijuana found that the active components can be helpful in treating a number of cancer-related symptoms, including nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy, neuropathic pain (pain caused by damaged nerves), poor appetite, pain relief, anxiety and insomnia.
There are two chemically-pure drugs based on marijuana compounds that have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical use.
- Dronabinol (Marinol®) is a gelatin capsule containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that is approved by the FDA to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy as well as weight loss and poor appetite in patients with AIDS.
- Nabilone (Cesamet®) is a synthetic cannabinoid that acts much like THC. It can be taken by mouth to treat nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy when other drugs have not worked.
Like many other drugs, the prescription cannabinoids, dronabinol and nabilone, can cause side effects and complications. Some people have trouble with increased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, dizziness or lightheadedness. These drugs can cause drowsiness as well as mood changes or a feeling of being “high” that some people find uncomfortable. They can also worsen pre-existing mental illnesses. Patients have also reported problems with dry mouth and trouble with recent memory. People who have had emotional illnesses, paranoia, or hallucinations may find their symptoms are worse when taking cannabinoid drugs.
In addition to the two FDA-approved medications mentioned above, recreational use of marijuana is prevalent in cancer populations, particularly now that over half of the states have legalized its use.
As of January 8, 2018, 30 states and Washington DC have legalized marijuana in one form or another (either only medical-use or both medical and recreational use). See the State Marijuana Laws in 2018 Map.
Meanwhile, a recent study found that where marijuana or its derivatives are legal, up to 25% of cancer patients engage in its use. However, as of date, the FDA has not approved the use of botanical marijuana to treat any medical condition. The FDA states more research and conclusive evidence are needed.
Talk to your doctor about what you should expect when taking one of the FDA-approved drugs or if you are considering using recreational marijuana. It’s a good idea to have someone with you when you first start taking one of these drugs and after any dose changes.
- Q&A about Cannabis - National Cancer Institute
- Marijuana and Cancer - American Cancer Society
- FDA and Marijuana: Overview
- FDA and Marijuana: Questions and Answers