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Cannabis Shows Great Promise in Treating Cancer—Let’s Not Wreck It With Hyperbole

August 10, 2017
Marijuana buds in small jars on wooden table with cannabis leafs
Editor’s Note: In light of the FDA’s Nov. 1, 2017, action to halt the “cancer cure” claims of some CBD manufacturers, Leafly is resurfacing this article by Dr. Dave Hepburn, which was originally published earlier this year. 

There’s no topic like cancer to inspire cacophonous claims of a cure, pegged to everything from the rinds of fruits nobody has ever eaten to powders drawn from Micronesian beaches no one has ever visited. As such, claims of miracle cures for cancer typically cause the medical establishment to roll their eyes and avert their attention.

This is why it’s so important to eschew such cure-related hyperbole when discussing the cancer-treating components of cannabis, which could all too easily be lumped into the same National Enquirer “wonder cure” category.


Government-Run Cancer Institute Quietly Acknowledges That Cannabis Kills Cancer Cells

Such talk is especially counterproductive given that there is little doubt that cannabis plays a very important role as a treatment option for cancer—a fact even government agencies are ready to acknowledge, issuing statements on cannabis and cancer that are profoundly encouraging.

The National Cancer Institute has said that “Cannabis has been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory.” (Presumably it does something similar outside of the laboratory, but taking cannabis from lab to bedside is an exercise in Schedule-I bureaucratic frustration.) In addition, the NCI states that “[c]annabinoids appear to kill tumor cells but do not affect their non-transformed counterparts and may even protect them from cell death.”

Anecdotes of success in treating cancer with cannabis can’t be ignored—they’re what’s driven the medicalization of cannabis for a long time.

This is because cannabis is what’s known as “pro-apoptotic.” Apoptosis means that a cell commits suicide. Cannabis encourages this in some cancer cells while protecting non-cancer cells from the same fate. As any oncologist will tell you, killing cancer cells while not affecting normal tissue is one of the Holy Grails of treatment. Cannabis can also prevent cancer cells from further dividing, spreading, and growing.

Even the National Institute of Drug Abuse—an organization historically devoted to vilifying cannabis—has gotten on board, stating that “marijuana extracts may help kill certain cancer cells and reduce the size of others.” Not even they can ignore the science.


These Cancer Survivors Share Their Preferred Cannabis Strains

Anecdotes of success in treating cancer with cannabis can’t be ignored—they’re what’s driven the medicalization of cannabis for a long time. But anecdotes aren’t enough to support touting cannabis as a miracle cure. As always with cannabis and its 144 cannabinoids, the range of effects and variations is vast. Medical cannabis is still the wild west. One size simply does not fit all. There are just too many permutations.

So let it be said, loudly and often: Cannabis is not a cure for cancer. It is not a panacea that has been evilly suppressed by greedy pharmaceutical corporations.

Exaggerations such as these do nothing but sabotage the potential of cannabis. T-shirts emblazoned with “Cannabis Cures Cancer” and assorted leafy greens simply give the appearance of Rastafarian snake oil.


The best cannabis strains for cancer-related symptoms

Let’s not further embolden biased clueless conservatives, who look for reasons to further vilify cannabis and stigmatize cannabis users. Now is the time for common sense and reason rather than common screech and rhetoric. Overcoming stigma means reversing ideas that are all too often loosely formed yet firmly held.

Progress in cannabinoid science is truly exciting and packed with great promise If we are to advance, the focus needs to be on objective science and studies. Let’s keep it that way.

Dr. Dave Hepburn's Bio Image

Dr. Dave Hepburn

Dr. Dave Hepburn is an award-winning syndicated columnist featured in several major newspapers across the United States and Canada, and is a recipient of the prestigious Canadian Community Newspaper Association columnist of the year award. He was a Canadian naval surgeon in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and served as the doctor for the Pacific fleet for three years. Amongst the growing number of media physicians educated about cannabinoid medicine, he is an member of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians, International Association for Cannabinoid Medicines, the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, and Physicians for Medical Cannabis.

View Dr. Dave Hepburn's articles

  • Franklin

    Seems like to me that the number one thing that we can raise awareness for right now is getting cannabis off the Schedule. Kids are put in danger today by having the plant at S1. We know that a certain percentage of young people is going to experiment regardless of how much we caution against it. The fatal danger is the some college kids smokes some marijuana and he finds out that there is no Santa Claus.

    It’s milder than beer. Not at all what most people were expecting. By having cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance with heroin and meth, the perception is that those things might not be so bad either since we already lied to the kids about marijuana. We are lying to the American people of all ages with the CSA. Marijuana is not has harmful as heroin. Firecrackers and hand grenades. Right now at this moment kids are playing with firecrackers and thinking it must be the same since the government and everyone else teaches it.

    There is an ad on every prohibition site for Beet Juice, that they claim cures cancer. Is there really anyone out there who hasn’t already heard about the hundreds of products that offer a cure for cancer? Google says About 120,000,000 results (0.96 seconds)

    • LadyJoePepper

      Respectfully, you are preaching to the converted. What can we do? I think it’s important is that Dr. Hepburn, yourself and the general public who supports removing criminal jurisdiction from cannabis possession and distribution express their opinions to the House of Commons before August 18th, the close date for the second reading of the Cannabis Act C-45. I think the deadline for comments by the general public is August 18th.

      The wording in the actual Cannabis Act sets priority #1 as: (a) establishes
      criminal prohibitions such as the unlawful sale or distribution of cannabis, including its sale or distribution to young persons, and the unlawful possession, production, importation and exportation of cannabis;

      Unless the provinces step in to protect the public at large from a monopoly by large L.P.’s, big tobacco style productions, and pharmaceutical L.P.’s, local people will be subject to punitive, annoying legal disputes about distribution and cultivation on a federal level. Prohibition 2.0

      Everyone knows that cannabis cures cancer, that is why there are patents in cannabis joint-stock companies betting on the future products, blocking competition in the market by only approving 38 L.P. distributors. The government will be trusting corporations who can fund big tobacco style business, and enact law enforcement schemes to control the civilian public interest.

      • Franklin

        If you are going to play arrogant at least be half smart. This is a US publication, about US law, and you’re posting Canadian activism. Buy a clue, and don’t come down here trying to be on our side. You could convince a man lost in the desert to pass on water.

        • LadyJoePepper

          I’m a dual citizen. Trudeau may as well be answering to Trump’s, D.E.A. drug czar, and anti-legalization lobbyists when they are trying to create a new illegal cannabis producer to prosecute. I see it as corporations working for their self interest and shareholders in an immoral war against the world citizen.

  • James Tripp

    There is a hell of a lot more than just a little bit of anecdotal evidence to indicate that cannabis can ‘cure’ cancer!

    Cannabinoids on their own can kill cancer cells via the cellular mechanisms of apoptosis and anti-angiogenesis but when combined with an alkaline diet and the elimination of sugars it is one of the most successful cancer treatment therapies known to man. Standard medical science has chosen to ignore it since 1974 and the success of virtually thousands of patients who have been cured of cancers via cannabinoid therapy has been virtually ignored for decades.

    The medical community is unwilling to accept any treatment they do not fully understand and unfortunately given the complexity of cannabis it will be decades before we ever truly understand all of the synergies involved with the compounds contained in the cannabis plant.

    If we wait for the medical community to acknowledge the healing capabilities of cannabis then thousands more will die while waiting.

    Cannabis therapy works, it is safer than virtually any pharmaceutical drug given that it has an ld50 Factor estimated to start at 20,000. An ld50 factor of this nature indicates that cannabis is one of the most safe and effective Medical Treatments known to man.

    The medical profession is going to have to learn to admit that they do not know how it works but we do know that it does work so let’s apply cannabinoid therapy instead of killing patients with pharmaceutical drugs that have only been around for less than a century.

  • James Tripp

    Our prime minister promised to use best practices and best science in the formation of our government’s cannabis policy but that is not what is happening.

    Our government is being misinformed by organizations that are pervaded by negative bias against all forms of cannabis use and as a result, our legislation we will be full of flaws based on gross misconceptions regarding how cannabis affects individual human physiology.

    Current legislation seems more fixated on the profits generated by the recreational Cannabis industry than the many medical benefits that cannabinoid therapy could provide to a large segment of the Canadian population.

    Please research phytocannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system, and look up patent 6630507, just for starters, before making any assumptions about Cannabis Use and general health.

  • ksn2020

    Mr. Hepburn….you would do best at practicing what you preach about hyperbole. The “clueless conservatives” line needs to be tossed. I am a proud Libertarian that supports legal cannabis. So stop painting with such a broad brush.

  • Kaabi

    This is a great article, thank you Dr. Hepburn! Indeed, cannabis is not an all-out cure and it is important to be honest about its powers and limits. However, we must all be bold and say the truth of what’s going on – in many cases, cannabis extracts can put terminal cancers into remission and it has a proven anticancer effect. This is proven with overwhelming preclinical and anecdotal evidence, and most importantly an actual placebo-controlled trial by GW. Patients NEED this medicine immediately and it can be safely integrated into existing cancer care.

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  • JMS

    I had stage IV colon cancer that spread to my liver, and then a year later (after operations, radiation, chemo, etc.) to all four lobes of my lungs. I was given 3-6 months to live, and with 18 rounds of chemo behind me (12 of Folfox, 6 of Folfiri) the tumors that riddled my lungs were still growing. I had to stop before my organs shut down due to damage from the chemo. I tried Rick Simpson Oil, sourced through a local dispensary, as a last resort. I did not expect it to work. I did it because my oncologist had other patients who had benefited, and my wife insisted I try it. It is now 18 months later and I’m in full remission, after having stopped all chemo and other traditional treatments, and relying solely on Rick Simpson Oil. I expected to die, instead I’m in perfect health and cancer free. It is not hyperbole to suggest concentrated cannabis oils such as Rick Simpson Oil have real, measurable, and enduring curative value.

    • jack flash

      Congratulations on being in remission! And thank you for sharing with the deniers. Rick Simpson is worthy of a statue.

    • Alex Kwan K

      How long did it take for you to become accustomed to taking RSO? From what I gather you have to take a large amount every day in order for it to be effective?

      • JMS

        It took about a month to titrate up from 1 drop/day to 1g/day. Once I finished the course, I went on a maintenance dose of 1 drop/day before bed.

  • pamela younger

    Its so important to be very clear on ALL CLAIMS regarding cannabis cures !!! This article is SPOT ON !!! Canbabis is remarkable. Cannabis can do many miracles. Lets be patient and accurate 😊

  • Andre Gartez

    Let’s change that to a more sensible catch phrase. Some suggestions: Cannabis might not cure cancer; Cannabis is yet to be clinically proven to kill cancer; a synthetic (patented) cannabinoid receptor agonist is yet to be proven to cure cancer… but to state that “Cannabis is not a cure for cancer” implies that there is no possibility of this being a fact.
    I recognize that, as a doctor, you are trained to be authoritarian and assertive (this is not a criticism, simply a statement of fact), but no doubt there were many doctors who stated that “washing your hands before delivering a child (having just performed surgery and being covered in blood) has no impact on infant and maternal mortality rates”.
    You are making a statement that something (cannabis) is NOT a cure for something (cancer). This puts you in the same camp as those who claim that cannabis IS a cure for cancer. Until you have randomized trials to prove that Cannabis is definitely not a cure for cancer, you offend the Gods of Science and Statistics by making such a comment.
    But having reviewed the anecdotal and published scientific data, I know damn well what my first choice will be if I prove to be a victim of this disease (to which I have a genetic tendency ie the odds are stacked against me). If cannabis fails, THEN (and only then) will I have my lower bowel removed and subject myself to months of chemo and radiation treatment – not the other way around. If my Oncologist doesn’t like it, she can go jump.
    So to summarize: Cannabis is yet to be clinically proven as a cure for cancer, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this is a very promising area of research for institutions that are more interested in curing cancer than maximizing shareholder value (eg government/philanthopically funded institutions that are focused on public health).
    Let us also bear in mind the simple fact that a company that spends millions getting a natural product approved (such as GW Pharmaceuticals’ Sativex) still needs to recover its costs, and hence has a seriously vested interest in ensuring that prohibition of all cannabis products (except their own formulation) remains illegal, even though it could be produced by anyone with access to a high THC strain, a high CBD strain (or one with even levels such as CBD Critical Cure) and access to an analytical lab test to verify cannabis levels for magnitudes less than what it would cost to buy it from a pharmacy (if approved).
    Maybe we can convince MAPS to fund this research once they succeed in having MDMA-assisted psychotherapy legalized as a cure for PTSD in 2021… and that is a certainty, based on current results and time lines for that research.
    What a strange world we live in. The question: will we permit it to continue to exist?

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  • James Peters

    Unfortunately, given what we know today about cancer (it’s hundreds of different diseases), the likelihood that a magic cure will ever be found is zero. Cancers are so diverse, heterogeneous and mutable (the mutations will very from cell to cell, tumour to tumour and person to person even when it’s the same type) that the approach based on looking for one is conceptually absurd

    • Jeffry S.

      Whether you buy that cannabis kills cancer cells or not, there are several other auxiliary benefits to adding it to your cancer treatment plan. The active ingredients in cannabis have been proven to effectively relieve the pain, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and weakness that cancer patients feel while going through chemotherapy.

  • jack flash

    I live in Michigan. We are allowed to make Rick Simpson oil. I have witnessed cannabis oil doing what I call ” miracles”. Run from it if YOU want to. But I insist ” cannabis oil can cure cancer”. 10 people in remission isn’t anecdotal evidence.

  • Spot on. Exactly the right message. Overclaiming is immensely damaging to our cause.

  • Bryan Rowley

    Check out ANNCANNMED for more information, health prescription and medical purchases. They have extremely potent products at good prices too. Recommend this dispensary to anyone looking at Cannabis for help!

  • Mcozy333

    the ECS Endocannabinoid system is your cancer defense system. cannabis creates phytocannabinoids. phytocannabinoids metabolize in the endocannabinoid system. the lipid initiated enzymatic cellular metabolism is how cancer cells are eliminated. ECS modulates all of the bio-chemical activity of your cells. the bio-chemicals are utilized to feed or kill the cell via intracellular access… the health of the cell determines the bio-chemicals present in the cell