Medical use of cannabinoids to help cancer patients is a controversial, emotionally charged issue that occupies a central place in the medical circles and mainstream media for several decades, with no clear answer in sight. While proponents of this practice claim that medical marijuana and its chemical analogues can be beneficial in many different ways, some of them borderline magical, the other camp has been steady in its denial of even the smallest practical advantage that cannabinoids could create for cancer victims.

Some jurisdictions, notably Netherlands and parts of the United States, have legalized use of marijuana-based products based on doctor recommendation, providing a lot of firsthand data for detailed inquiry into role of cannabinoids in cancer treatment. In addition to that, chemical products containing cannabinoids (such as dronabinol or nabilone) were first used to fight chemotherapy symptoms back in 1980’s, so this field of research is certainly not new. In the past several years, there is also an increased amount of lab studies on animals, adding another layer of quantitative data to the mix.

Available findings are not always easy to put in context, so it is possible to hear wildly different opinions on the extent of the attention cannabinoids deserve. Numerous patients confirm that cannabinoid compounds are extremely helpful against nausea and loss of appetite following chemotherapy and this type of effect is what has driven the medical legalization efforts so far. However, it is important to note that reducing side-effects of another treatment is not the same as “curing cancer” and that other medications have been proven to achieve similar objective, although a large percentage of patients still prefer cannabinoids to anything else.

Some lab studies have even indicated that cannabinoids could be useful for active cancer treatment. Under laboratory conditions, cannabinoids were successfully used to prevent division of malignant cells and stop formation of tumours out of contaminated blood vessels, which in turn reduces the possibility that the cancer would spread through the body. Purified THC and cannabidiol (CBD) have proven to be the most effective for this purpose, but synthetic cannabinoids such and JWH-133 were used as well. The situation is much different with human cells and experiments of this kind are still a long way from producing a viable treatment, but this is definitely something to keep an eye on in the coming years.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that marijuana and other cannabinoids can also have negative impact of cancer formation, especially if they are smoked. In some cases, administration of cannabinoids can even stimulate growth of cancer cells, depending on presence of CB1 and CB2 receptors on the cancer cell. This is why even the staunchest proponents of this approach recommend that cannabinoids are combined with another type of more traditional treatment (chemotherapy in most cases).

The bottom line is – there is a plenty of solid evidence to form an opinion about this issue now and hard-line positions on either side of the debate must be re-evaluated with a cold head and unbiased attitude.