The narrative surrounding the medicinal qualities of cannabis is one that has been circulating for a decade, with bolder claims surfacing every year. It would appear that cannabis is what the health-care industry has been searching for: the pharmacological Holy Grail.
However, digging beneath the surface of many of these claims yields nothing more than myth and misinformation. You might be familiar with some of the medicinal properties of cannabis and the claims of its ability to ease symptoms of epilepsy or pain, which have been heavily researched.
Increasingly, cannabis is also being promoted as a complementary medicine in cancer treatments, with web-based resources like The Truth About Cancer calling cannabis a herbal chemo agent. With featured articles that include how to detox with iodine, the information found on this website appears to be quite unreliable, but it could be convincing for people without a background in science.
Another easily accessible resource that might appear legitimate is the United Patients Group, an organization from California that aims to guide patients through the medicinal cannabis system. They, too, have published claims of THC curing cancer.
The UPG was created after the founder’s father-in-law was able to mitigate the symptoms of his stage 4 cancer with a treatment of THC-infused coconut oil capsules. Their big claim is that THC can kill the cancer cells by triggering their self-destruct mechanism — something referred to as apoptosis.
There is currently not enough evidence to back up claims like these, yet they persist. UPG goes even further, claiming that cannabis will help treat a host of illnesses, including hemophilia — a genetic blood-clotting disorder — and viral illnesses like herpes and hepatitis.
Where has this misinformation come from? It is clear that the chemicals inside the cannabis plant have potential therapeutic and pharmaceutical applications, but evidence-based research has been slow and involves a lot of bureaucratic hurdles — leading to a lot of unanswered questions. Unfortunately, the information we do have is often misinterpreted and embellished.
At the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Robert Laprairie is an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition who also works with GlaxoSmithKline in drug discovery and research. His main focus is on drug discovery for the cannabinoid receptors — CB1 and CB2 — in what is known as the body’s endogenous cannabinoid system.
“The drugs I am working on have implications for a wide range of diseases, from epilepsy to pain to Huntington’s and more, but we know very little about the receptor itself,” Laprairie said. “We just want understand how best to design a drug that targets that receptor.”
While there are controlled clinical trials that demonstrate cannabidiol, or CBD, is an effective treatment of pediatric epilepsy, Laprairie believes that research for other illnesses has a long way to go before they can collect similarly supporting evidence.
“I think that we have a little bit of evidence for a lot of different things, and that’s problematic,” Laprairie said. “I think we are going to find [that], when we push to understand where cannabis is and is not effective, we are going to find a lot of places where the evidence just doesn’t exist.”
Laprairie hopes that legalization will stimulate this kind of research, decrease the stigma and open up more opportunities for clinical trials where we can truly measure the effectiveness of cannabinoids in the treatment of illnesses. And Laprairie isn’t alone — he is part of the Cannabinoid Research Initiative of Saskatchewan, a large interdisciplinary group on campus that is the first of its kind.
“It’s all the way from plant to policy and everything in between,” Laprairie said. “It allows us to bridge research from agriculture, economic and health spheres.”
Laprairie is certain that CRIS has allowed the researchers to get a lot of work off the ground that would have been impossible to do if they were working as separate units.
Cannabis clearly shows promise in the pharmacological implications of the substance, but there is work to be done. Legalization will help to demystify cannabis, help researchers understand the potential positive impact of cannabis on our health and, hopefully, help the public separate evidence from speculation.
Erin Matthews / Opinions Editor
Photo: Riley Deacon / Photo Editor