Yes. Cannabis has been used as a medicine for thousands of years and is helping increasing numbers of people now. But some people misunderstand what this means. Sometimes people argue with one side saying “cannabis is a harmful drug” and the other side saying “no it isn’t, cannabis is a wonderful medicine”. Both sides are right and wrong. Cannabis itself isn’t either good or bad; it depends on the type, how it is used, in what situation, and who uses it. It is just like a knife; a surgeon can use one kind of knife to make a sick person better, or a healthy person can accidentally harm themselves with a knife.
Usually, for a drug to be recognized as a proper medicine, scientists have to have done a trial in which they take a group of people who all have a particular problem or illness, give only half of them the drug, and find out if the people who were given the drug do better overall than the people who were not given it. A recent study reported that in the UK nearly 1.4million people are using cannabis for medical reasons. Although cannabis is still illegal it seems that many people are finding a benefit from it. Recently, there has been growing interest in looking at real world accounts of these people and reporting on how medical cannabis has helped them. Scientists conducting this kind of research, which is one of the things we do at Drug Science, argue that this is a reasonable and high-quality way of understanding how well a drug is doing. We are working with legislators to realise the importance of studies that don’t follow strict and expensive trials and they are beginning to see the benefit of this new approach.
Drug Science is currently collecting data on medical cannabis with Project Twenty21, through which eligible people can access medical cannabis at a reduced price, while their treatment outcomes are analysed to gather evidence for the role of cannabis as a medicine and to help guide public health policy.
Some forms of cannabis or chemicals from cannabis have passed through the strict trials showing for example that it can help reduce painful symptoms for some people with MS. Other medical uses of cannabis, like preventing seizures, seem very promising. Other evidence has also emerged on its role in treating chronic pain and anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.
But not everyone can benefit from the medical properties of cannabis, and trying to use it as a medicine without a doctor’s guidance might do more harm than good.
There are many scientists who are trying hard to help patients by investigating and testing all the interesting chemicals in the cannabis plant that could maybe work as medicines, so that as many people as possible can benefit in future. This work takes a long time, especially as research and medical use of the drug is restricted by the law. This leads to a very sad situation where people who might possibly benefit from using a carefully produced cannabis medicine like Sativex cannot get it from their doctor or can only buy unpredictable illegal cannabis.
The distress this causes is made worse when people put their hope in stories, which often spread online, that cannabis is a miracle cure for cancer and almost everything else. These stories are often passed to ill people with good intentions, but they can be a dangerously persuasive mix of misinterpreted facts and total nonsense. They can mislead people into thinking that radiotherapy and chemotherapy are evil treatments that don’t work, their doctors are their enemies, and that all a person with cancer needs is natural cannabis.
There is early hope that cannabis may have an important place in the toolkit doctors have to fight cancer, in short, it may become a useful chemotherapy, but it is not a replacement for current chemotherapy. At the moment, the evidence for cannabis as a chemotherapy is incomplete and uncertain, it might help, it might not. But it is certain that despite the damage they can do, the chemotherapies and radiotherapy in use now have helped millions of people beat cancer or extend their lives.