Medical Marijuana’s Role in Cancer Treatment

by Haley Mills · April 7, 2023

Discover the role of medical marijuana in cancer treatment and how it can be used to manage symptoms and side effects. Learn about the potential benefits of using cannabis for cancer patients.

medical marijuana and cancer

In recent years, the medical community has witnessed a surge in the use of medical marijuana as an alternative treatment for a myriad of conditions. One area that has garnered significant attention is its role in cancer treatment. Researchers have recently begun to explore the various ways that cannabis and its active compounds can be utilized to alleviate the symptoms and side effects of cancer and explore the potential impact on the progression of the disease itself.

This article will provide an overview of the latest research findings, patient experiences, and expert opinions surrounding the use of medical marijuana in cancer care, in addition to discussing the legal and ethical considerations that come with its use.

The Connection Between Marijuana and Cancer

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing interest in understanding the connection between medical marijuana and cancer. This connection is rooted in the potential therapeutic benefits of the various cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant. As scientific research continues to explore the underlying mechanisms of these compounds, a clearer picture is emerging, revealing how medical marijuana can positively impact the lives of cancer patients.

One of the primary ways medical marijuana is connected to cancer treatment is through its ability to alleviate the side effects associated with traditional cancer therapies such as chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments can lead to uncomfortable symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and chronic pain.

Cannabis compounds, notably THC and CBD, have been shown to effectively manage these side effects by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system. This interaction can help to regulate various physiological processes, including pain perception, immune response, and gastrointestinal function. By relieving these distressing symptoms, medical marijuana can significantly improve the quality of life for cancer patients undergoing conventional therapies.

Another critical aspect of the connection between medical marijuana and cancer lies in its potential to affect cancer cells directly. Several preclinical studies have demonstrated that cannabinoids, such as CBD and THC, can induce apoptosis (cell death) in specific cancer cells, inhibit tumor growth, and reduce cancer spread to other body parts.

While these findings are still preliminary, and more research is needed to fully understand the extent of these anticancer properties, they provide hope for developing novel cannabis-based therapies that may one day complement or even replace some traditional cancer treatments. As the scientific community continues to unlock the secrets of the cannabis plant, the connection between medical marijuana and cancer will undoubtedly become more defined, paving the way for innovative and effective treatment options for cancer patients worldwide.

Cannabis Compounds to Know

Regarding medical marijuana and its use in cancer treatment, several essential compounds are crucial in its therapeutic effects. The two most important and well-known compounds found in cannabis are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). However, many other cannabinoids and terpenes may contribute to the overall benefits of medical marijuana for cancer patients. Here are the most significant compounds to know:

  1. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC): THC is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, responsible for the “high” sensation. It has been found to have several therapeutic effects, including pain relief, appetite stimulation, and nausea reduction – all of which can benefit cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments.
  2. Cannabidiol (CBD): CBD is a non-psychoactive compound with numerous potential therapeutic benefits. It has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anxiolytic properties, making it helpful in managing pain, inflammation, and anxiety in cancer patients. CBD has also shown promise in inhibiting cancer cell growth and enhancing the effectiveness of chemotherapy drugs.
  3. Cannabinol (CBN): CBN is a mildly psychoactive cannabinoid produced as THC breaks down over time. It has been found to possess sedative and analgesic effects, which can be helpful for cancer patients dealing with insomnia and pain.
  4. Cannabigerol (CBG): CBG is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid with potential anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anticancer properties. It has shown promise in inhibiting tumor growth and reducing the spread of cancer cells.
  5. Terpenes: Terpenes are aromatic compounds in cannabis that contribute to its unique scent and flavor. They may also play a role in the therapeutic effects of medical marijuana, as they can interact with cannabinoids to produce an “entourage effect,” which enhances the overall benefits. Some common terpenes found in cannabis include myrcene (anti-inflammatory, analgesic), limonene (antidepressant, immunostimulant), and linalool (anxiolytic, sedative).

When using medical marijuana for cancer treatment, it is essential to consider the specific cannabinoid and terpene profile of the cannabis strain, as different strains may have varying effects and therapeutic benefits. It is also crucial to consult with a healthcare professional experienced in medical marijuana to determine the most appropriate strain, dosage, and delivery method for each patient’s individual needs. 

FAQs- Medical Marijuana and Cancer

Is Medical marijuana legal in the United States?

Medical marijuana legality in the United States is complex, varying on federal and state levels. Federally, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, making it illegal under federal law. However, numerous states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana for various qualifying conditions, including cancer. The drug enforcement administration doesn’t pursue marijuana crimes as heavily as in previous decades. It is essential for patients to consult their state’s specific regulations and guidelines to understand the legal status of medical marijuana where they reside. Some medical marijuana laws even allow out-of-state reciprocity, so it’s best to research before traveling.

How can marijuana help treat cancer patients?

Marijuana can help treat cancer patients in several ways. Primarily, it can alleviate many side effects associated with cancer therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation, including nausea, vomiting, pain, and loss of appetite.

Additionally, some cannabinoids, like CBD and THC, have demonstrated potential anticancer properties in preclinical studies, suggesting they may inhibit tumor growth and reduce the spread of cancer cells. However, more research is needed to confirm these effects on early-stage and advanced cancer patients.

Are there risks to using marijuana?

Yes, there are risks associated with using marijuana, primarily when used recreationally or without proper guidance. Potential risks include impaired cognitive function, dizziness, increased heart rate, anxiety, paranoia, and dependency. It is crucial for patients considering medical marijuana to consult with a healthcare professional who can guide them in selecting appropriate strains, dosages, and administration methods to minimize potential risks and maximize therapeutic benefits.

What are the FDA-approved Cannabidiol drugs?

Several chemically pure, marijuana-based drugs have been approved in the US for medical use. Dronabinol (Marinol®/Syndros®), which contains delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is FDA-approved for treating nausea and vomiting from cancer chemotherapy, as well as weight loss and poor appetite in AIDS patients. Nabilone (Cesamet®) is a synthetic cannabinoid similar to THC, used to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting when other medications have been ineffective.

Nabiximols, a mouth spray containing a nearly equal mix of THC and cannabidiol (CBD), is still under study in the US. While not yet approved in the US, it is available in Canada and parts of Europe for treating cancer-related pain, muscle spasms, and multiple sclerosis (MS) pain. The drug is undergoing clinical trials in the US to determine its potential for treating various conditions.

Can you take medical marijuana with chemotherapy and radiation?

In many cases, medical marijuana can be taken alongside chemotherapy and radiation treatments to help manage side effects such as pain, nausea, and loss of appetite. However, it is crucial for patients to consult with their oncologist or healthcare provider before incorporating medical marijuana into their cancer treatment plan, as there may be potential interactions or contraindications with specific medications.

What does the American Cancer Society say about marijuana use in cancer patients?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) recognizes that marijuana has the potential to help manage some cancer-related symptoms and side effects of cancer treatments. However, the ACS urges patients to consult their healthcare providers before using medical marijuana. It emphasizes the need for more research to determine its safety, efficacy, and optimal use in cancer care.

What does the National Cancer Institute say about cannabis for cancer?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) acknowledges that cannabis and cannabinoids may benefit cancer patients in managing symptoms and side effects of treatments. The NCI also highlights that some preclinical studies have shown cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth, but more research is needed to confirm these findings. The NCI encourages continued research and supports patients discussing cannabis with their healthcare providers for breast cancer therapy and cancers caused by tobacco smoke, among many other types.

Can medical marijuana help with pain relief?

Yes, medical marijuana has been shown to help with cancer pain relief in many patients, including those with cancer-related pain. This is primarily due to the analgesic properties of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, which interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system to modulate pain perception and reduce inflammation.

Can MMJ help with anxiety and depression?

Medical marijuana has been reported to help some patients with anxiety and depression, primarily through the effects of cannabinoids like CBD and certain terpenes. However, it is important to note that high-THC strains may exacerbate anxiety in some individuals. Patients considering medical marijuana for anxiety or depression should consult a healthcare professional to determine the most appropriate strain and dosage for their needs.

Does Marijuana have anti-nausea and appetite-promoting qualities?

Yes, marijuana has anti-nausea and appetite-promoting qualities, which can be particularly beneficial for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatments. THC, the primary psychoactive component in cannabis, reduces nausea and vomiting and stimulates appetite by interacting with the body’s endocannabinoid system. This has led to the development of FDA-approved medications like dronabinol (Marinol) and nabilone (Cesamet) that contain synthetic THC to help manage these symptoms.

Is medical marijuana safer than other prescription cancer drugs?

The safety of medical marijuana as a cancer therapy compared to other prescription cancer drugs is subjective. It depends on various factors, such as the specific medications involved, the patient’s overall health, and the potential for drug interactions.

Generally, medical marijuana is considered to have a relatively low risk of severe side effects when used under the guidance of a healthcare professional. However, patients should discuss the potential risks and benefits of medical marijuana with their existing cancer treatment plan with their healthcare provider.

What studies have been done to support MMJ use for people with cancer?

Numerous studies have been conducted to evaluate the potential benefits of medical marijuana for people with cancer. Many of these studies have focused on managing cancer-related symptoms and treatment side effects, such as pain, nausea, and loss of appetite.

For example, a 2010 Canadian Medical Association Journal review found that cannabinoids effectively reduced chronic neuropathic pain in cancer patients. Other research has investigated the potential anticancer properties of cannabinoids, with some preclinical studies demonstrating the ability of cannabinoids to inhibit tumor growth and promote apoptosis in certain cancer cell lines.

A study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, published in the Journal of Pain in 2015, examined the use of vaporized cannabis in patients experiencing chronic pain, including cancer-related pain. The randomized, placebo-controlled trial involved 42 participants and compared the effects of different ratios of THC and CBD.

The study found that low-dose vaporized cannabis significantly improved neuropathic pain, with the most significant pain relief observed in patients using a THC: CBD ratio of 1:1. This research supports the potential benefit of medical marijuana, particularly with balanced THC and CBD content, in alleviating cancer-related pain. The study can be found at the following link:

A study from the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University, published in Cancer in 2011, investigated the impact of dronabinol (synthetic THC) on chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial involved 64 cancer patients who had not experienced relief from nausea and vomiting with standard antiemetic medications. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either dronabinol or a placebo.

The results showed that patients receiving dronabinol experienced a significant reduction in the severity and duration of nausea and vomiting compared to the placebo group. While the study focused on synthetic THC rather than whole-plant cannabis, it provides evidence supporting the potential benefits of THC, a primary compound in medical marijuana, for managing chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The study can be found at the following link:


Medical marijuana’s role in cancer treatment has emerged as a promising area of research, with evidence indicating its potential to alleviate pain, manage side effects, and even inhibit the growth of cancer cells.

While the current body of evidence is not yet conclusive, the growing number of anecdotal experiences and positive clinical trial results highlight the importance of further investigation into the benefits of medical cannabis for cancer patients. As our understanding of this powerful plant continues to expand, so will the possibilities for its integration into modern cancer treatment strategies.

Last Updated: January 30, 2024

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