Like it or not, we 21st-century Americans are living in what could be termed “the era of the consumer.” Increasingly, our field of vision, our sonic environment, and seemingly our inner monologues are being infiltrated by advertising—medicine is no exception. While most countries ban the direct marketing of prescription pharmaceuticals to the public, the United States is the major exception (even if all those slick commercials are technically classified as “promotional labeling”). Whatever you call it, the message is clear: We’re expected to desire the cure before we truly understand the disease.
In this sense, cannabis is no different. Though cannabis isn’t yet legally marketed as “medicine”—we can thank the entanglement of federal statutes and agencies for that—the internet is awash in claims regarding cannabis’ cancer-fighting, fat-burning, and liver-cleansing powers, among many others. Cutting through the chatter is doubly difficult due to the enduring difficulties of commissioning authoritative, gold-standard studies on the efficacy of clinical cannabis.
On the bright side, those studies are slowly creeping through the lengthy certification process, and much more will follow suit. But until a broad, validated consensus on the efficacy of cannabis for specific conditions appears, let’s take a careful look at a few of the important concerns surrounding cannabis as medicine.
Is cannabis as medicine effective?
The thoughtful response is: “For what condition?” But the yes-or-no version is an emphatic, unambiguous “YES.” It’s easy to be distracted by cannabis’ euphoric effect and its resulting decades-long prohibition, but cannabis is quite possibly the very first plant cultivated by humans, and its medicinal properties have been cataloged for at least 5,000 years. The question gets a bit stickier when we ask what constitutes a “cure.” As we’re still in an early knowledge-gathering phase regarding this most ancient medicine, it’s perhaps most accurate to state that we don’t yet know if cannabis cures specific diseases. But it unquestionably helps mitigate their effects, and for many chronic conditions, that’s about as close to “cured” as we can hope to get.
Does cannabis cure cancer?
Preliminary studies regarding cannabis’ actual cancer-fighting properties show potential, but any responsible clinician will point out that “miracle drugs” almost never survive scrutiny, not unlike the widely disseminated story regarding former President Jimmy Carter. That said, cannabis is highly effective at combating the worst side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and as noted above, in many instances palliative care is given equal or greater weight than traditional curative care.
If we don’t know whether cannabis actually cures anything, why should I use it?
A fair point, given that there are already so many federally approved pharmaceuticals. Again, examining conditions on a case-by-case basis is more instructive than resorting to blanket statements, like “cannabis is safer” or “I don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry.” Cannabis has been shown to be more effective than pharmaceuticals in treating some difficult-to-diagnose conditions, most notably fibromyalgia, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis (MS). But what may be equally important is that cannabis use often reduces patients’ dependance on other, objectively less safe drugs such as opioids, while in many cases doing a better job of treating the underlying symptoms, such as chronic pain. It’s safe to say that, given a choice, most patients prefer to be on fewer—and more effective—drugs, not more of them.
Again, we’re still at a dismayingly early stage of quantifying exactly what cannabis can, and cannot do to treat disease. If history is any guide, we’re going to learn that cannabis is neither a panacea or a silver bullet when it comes to life-threatening diseases such as cancer. Instead, we’re going to continue to find effective, even startling uses for what is perhaps the most ancient medicine of all. And then cannabis will take its place—for better or for worse—alongside all the other drug advertisements competing for our attention.