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Researchers say cannabis can help reduce pain for people with cancer. María Soledad Kubat/Stocksy
  • Researchers say cannabis appears to be able to alleviate pain from cancer as well as diminish chemotherapy side effects.
  • In a new study, people with cancer reported that cannabis use them help reduce pain, get better sleep, and think more clearly.
  • Experts say federal laws need to be changed so more research can be done on the benefits and effects of cannabis on medical conditions.

People with cancer who use cannabis to reduce symptoms have less pain, get better sleep, and can think more clearly, according to a study completed at the University of Colorado at Boulder and published in the journal Exploration in Medicine.

This is one of the first observational studies to assess how dispensary-purchased cannabis products can affect cancer symptoms and chemotherapy side effects.

Under federal laws in the United States, university researchers cannot possess or distribute cannabis products except government-issued or pharmaceutical-grade cannabis, making research of dispensary products difficult.

However, the University of Colorado researchers came up with an innovative approach. They observed the responses of 25 cancer patients who purchased their products.

The scientists completed a baseline appointment with the patients to assess pain levels, sleep patterns, and cognition.

The participants then went to a dispensary and purchased an edible cannabis product of their choice. They chose a wide variety of products, including:

  • Chocolates
  • Gummies
  • Tinctures
  • Pills
  • Baked goods

There was also a wide range of THC and CBD potencies.

The researchers used a mobile lab to drive to each person’s home.

Each person was given physical and cognitive assessments in the van, then asked to go into their homes to use the cannabis product they selected.

They underwent another test after using medical marijuana.

The patients indicated that their pain levels improved significantly within an hour of using the products. It also impaired cognition and gave them a “high” feeling. The higher the THC levels, the higher they said they felt.

The participants also had a follow-up exam after two weeks of sustained use. The patients reported diminished pain, sleep quality, and cognitive function at that time. Objective measures of cognitive function showed improvements in different areas, such as reaction times.

The researchers noted that cognitive function improved due to decreased pain levels. The more the pain subsided, the more cognition improved.

The patients who took higher levels of CBD reported significant improvements in sleep and pain. CBD is an anti-inflammatory.

The study authors note that while cognition was impaired short-term, reducing pain can improve it.

Experts say some forms and dosages of cannabis might help people during cancer treatment.

“This study adds to the growing body of research that examines the potential benefits of cannabis use in cancer patients,” said Dr. Wael Harb, a hematologist and medical oncologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in California who was not involved in the study.

“The findings highlight the potential for cannabis to alleviate pain, improve cognition, and enhance the overall quality of life for patients,” Harb told Medical News Today. “The clinical implications of these findings are significant, as they suggest that cannabis could serve as an alternative or adjunct therapy for cancer patients, particularly those experiencing pain or cognitive impairments.”

“However, it is essential to note that the study has limitations, such as a relatively small sample size, which may not represent the broader population of cancer patients,” he added. “Additionally, the study relies on self-reported data, which can be subject to biases. Further research with larger, more diverse samples and more objective measurement tools are necessary to confirm these findings and explore any potential risks or adverse effects associated with cannabis use in cancer patients.”

“This small study supports what oncologists have known for a long time: many cancer patients (half of them, according to some surveys) use cannabis to cope with nausea, pain, and sleeplessness caused by cancer drugs,” said Daniele Piomelli, PhD, the director of the UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis.

“Fortunately, the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health) is well aware of this and much needed larger studies are now looming,” he told Medical News Today.

There are two main substances (cannabinoids) found in the cannabis plant and used in medical treatments, according to the National Institutes of Health. These are CBD and THC.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved these for use. However, the agency has approved some drugs that contain them:

As of now, 46 states have legalized cannabis use in some form or decriminalized its use.

Each state has its own laws, and anyone planning on using medical products should check the regulations for their area first.

“I am very excited about this study as it is one of the first studies to address some of the issues surrounding recommending medical cannabis products in an evidence-based way,” said Dr. Olivia Seecof, a clinical assistant professor of medicine and supportive oncology attending physician at NYU Langone Perlmutter Cancer Center in New York.

“I do certify patients during outpatient supportive oncology visits for medical cannabis. To be able to do so, I needed to complete an additional training/certification course and register with the New York State Medical Cannabis Program,” she told Medical News Today.

“I believe that when used in addition to other pharmacologic therapies or for refractory symptoms, there are many potential benefits to cannabis products for patients with cancer – even more than the ones addressed in the article,” Seecof added. “A main challenge is the lack of data to support the use of various products and various doses, so any information we get to inform our recommendations to patients is helpful. I discuss with each patient that there is a lot of uncertainty and certain products may not be the right fit for each individual patient, so I always recommend starting with a low dose and considering trying a few different products a few different times before deciding if medical cannabis is right for them.”

The medical marijuana industry is growing.

In 2021, it was valued at nearly $27 billion in the United States. It could grow to $248 billion by 2030, according to Market Research Future.

Several potential laws in Congress will decriminalize or legalize marijuana, according to an article in Reuters.

One law would decriminalize it on a federal level and leave it up to the state to regulate. The regulation change will allow for more research, providing information medical professionals need to give their patients.

“Many physicians are still uncomfortable with cannabis because of its unclear legal status and the stigma associated with it,” Piomelli said. “But with so many patients using it, the profession can no longer keep its head in the sand. Physicians, nurses, and all medical personnel need to learn more about the benefits and harms of cannabis so that they can better address their patients’ needs.”