Marijuana and Cancer Treatment
Should I smoke dope to help my symptoms?
On May 19th 2003 the NSW Premier, Bob Carr announced a program to allow cancer patients to use marijuana “to prevent nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and to treat cancer related pain”.
I am quite sure that Bob Carr is well motivated in his attempts to have marijuana legitimised for medical use. He was strongly influenced by a close parliamentary friend who used the drug to help treat the loss of appetite and weight loss that he experienced from HIV Aids.
However, my own feeling is that marijuana has only a very small part to play in managing the symptoms of cancer and in managing nausea from chemotherapy.
The main problem is obvious: the drug has far reaching side effects! Quite simply, in order to get the medicinal benefits, you have to be stoned! Whilst a select group of people might quite enjoy this experience, most of my patients are in situations where they have to function at work, at home, and with their families. It is not usually possible to do this terribly effectively if you are hallucinating! It is certainly highly dangerous to drive when under the influence of marijuana and I cannot imagine how anybody could work, concentrate, read, study, or look after children whilst under the influence of the drug.
There is also the risk that by smoking it with a compromised immune system, you introduce bacteria into your lungs which can lead to some serious complications. Probably not what you need.
Furthermore, the active ingredient in marijuana, tetra-hydro-cannabinol or THC, has been extensively tested as an anti-nausea medication and it is probably no more effective than our existing agents, like ondansetron, which has far fewer side-effects.
I am unaware of any data are that shows marijuana to be an effective painkiller. Certainly, it is useful as an appetite stimulant, but only if you are prepared to put up with the side effects.
Another thing to mention: It's still illegal! It's use for medicinal purposes are still not legal in Australia.
One final point about Bob Carr's comments. He seems to think that chemotherapy is absolute torture! He describes seeing patients in "agony" from the effects of chemotherapy. This is a very outdated and ill-informed view as we are nearly always able to control the majority of side-effects from chemotherapy with our existing highly effective medications.