A couple of weeks ago this blog reported on a flurry of excitement in cannabis law reform circles caused by the issue of a DVD entitled “What if cannabis cured cancer?”. The press announcement from October 2010 sounded interesting, promising

the 60 minute documentary presents highly convincing evidence that this forbidden herb has healing properties beyond any other plant on the planet

So the order was placed and last week the DVD arrived, so does it match the hype? The answer is most certainly yes, but of course there are a few reservations.

The first thing to say is not meant as a criticism; this is a low budget independent production not made by a major production company and some of the production techniques show that. The programme relies a lot on snippets taken from programmes made by the BBC and other broadcasters, some of which have been described previously on this blog.

What is also patently true is this DVD is setting out to promote the medical benefits of cannabis, it is not an investigative documentary which looks at claims and counter claims. That said it does at least back its claims up with reference to actual research and facts which are well documented. It is in many respects the antithesis of the Daily Mail’s approach to cannabis reporting and is probably closer to the truth than the tabloid media would normally dare to tread.

Perhaps most importantly it doesn’t treat the viewer like a moron with the attention span of an ant, there no annoying “yoof” presentation, no stupid camera techniques, this is an intelligent presentation.

The DVD is divided into five sections: Introduction, The new frontier, The pioneers, The chemistry and The future

Introduction

It makes a refreshing change to watch a programme that doesn’t start by telling the viewer what they’re about to see as most trash documentaries these days seem to do especially on BBC 3. Instead this programme starts with a little speculation: We are reminded that cannabis is nothing new to human civilisation – marijuana may have been the first crop cultivated by people and may have been the inspiration for early cave art. Beyond this conjecture though what we do know is that cannabis is still inspiring new discoveries and a deeper understanding of health and disease. Then we get the programme proper with an outline of all the things cannabis can treat without the unwanted side effects of pharmaceutical drugs. Interestingly we are told that the anointing oils used in biblical times contained cannabis oils – something reported on in today’s Guardian as it happens

“There can be little doubt about a role for cannabis in Judaic religion,” Carl Ruck, professor of classical mythology at Boston University said.

We are reminded of the long tradition cannabis had as a medicine and in Victorian times was prescribed for a huge range of conditions including ( perhaps unwisely) to stop cranky babies form crying. Queen Victoria herself used cannabis to treat her menstrual cramps.

However the new century saw the emergence of the pharmaceutical industry which didn’t want the competition form the cannabis based remedies. These new “miracle drugs” were composed of unnatural toxic substances and many doctors preferred to stay with their traditional drugs. But following the reefer madness scares and lobbying from the pharmaceutical industries doctors were prohibited from prescribing cannabis and by 1942 cannabis was a forbidden medicine. At about the same time the massive prohibition industry, having failed with alcohol prohibition, turned its attention to marijuana eradication. Dr Abrams MD (professor of Clinical Medicine) is heard describing the efforts of Harry Anslinger’s campaign against cannabis. All this is well documented on UKCIA main site, especially  in the Pot Culture feature. However much certain prohibition supporters may sneer, the prohibition of cannabis did indeed come about through racist and industry lead campaigns, it is a regime built on very unsavoury foundations.

However, we are shown how things are changing now in the US with the medical marijuana laws being passed, since 1996 13 states have passed similar laws.

The programme now tells us the key claim that is behind this DVD:

Although cannabis smoke has been shown to have precancerous effects in animal tissue, countless studies have failed to find a link between cannabis smoking and cancer. In fact have shown that heavy marijuana users have considerably fewer cancers than the general population

Dr David Bearman, MD, is shown giving a lecture in what looks like a university somewhere describing the work of  UCLA’s Dr Donald Tashkin who famously studies a large number of actual cannabis users who found that the incidence of people with lung cancer in cannabis smokers was less than the incidence in people who smoked nothing at all (Marijuana Use and Lung Cancer: Results of a Case-Control Study- here). We then see Dr Taskin making the point that there seems to be no association between cannabis use and cancer.

The DVD then asks the most obvious and important question:

Is it possible that the tar in smoked in pot could be causing the malignancies while the chemical constituents in the pot are curing them at the same time?

But instead of developing that line t he DVD switches to the issue of whether or not cannabis causes schizophrenia and is pretty dismissive of claims that it does, we are told that adolescents showing pre schizophrenics signs find that smoking cannabis helps their thought disorder and so are self medicating, hence we have a lot of ill people using cannabis. The research the DVD  alludes to to but doesn’t name is probably that carried out by Keel University in 2007 (Assessing the impact of cannabis use on trends in diagnosed schizophrenia in the United Kingdom from 1996 to 2005).

This section seems out of place to me, why the issue of mental health was brought up at this point (or at all actually) isn’t clear, it would have been so much better to have developed the cancer and smoking argument, especially the relationship to tobacco use.

We then look at the nature of THC with the aid of a clip form some TV documentary  featuring Ester Fride, PhD fromt he college of Judea and Samatra who tells us THC was disvoered in 1964 and then we see the person who did that research, Rapheal Mechoulam from the University of Jerusalem describing ther nature of the chemical, but nothing was known about the mechanism of how cannabis actually works.

But rather than get into a discussion about brain chemistry we take a bit of a diversion into what the effects of cannabis actually are and that many of the claims of harm – such as brain damage – failed to stand up to scrutiny. All in all, we’re told, cannabis is very low risk with 5000 years of use and no evidence of any direct deaths caused by its use.

We then see a medical cannabis shop in the US selling a range of “cannabis enhanced” foods, which makes it easy to “over medicate”, but even so they are not toxic or lethal and the effects of an overdose will stop in a few hours. This is of course true, especially for adults, but may not be such a good thing for kids or people at risk of developing a mental illness. But the point is well made, cannabis is not fatal even at high doses.

The new frontier

We then return to cancer and the number of studies in recent years that show cannabis is an effective treatment for a range of cancers, including brain, breast, prostrate, lung and many others. Cannabis compounds do this

by promoting the death of cancer cells that have forgotten how to die, as well as a reduction in their crucial blood supply, whilst leaving healthy cells untouched

This is a huge and significant claim of course, and if true is wonderful news. Why does cannabis have any effect on cancers? The reason is due to “Endocannabinoids”, the bodies own cannabis like compounds. The Endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the body is described as

a form of cannabis already in our bodies

The ECS moderates a lot of functions in our bodies, typically

They protect our good cells while killing the bad ones, like cancer.

We are shown how nerves have evolved over many years and we are shown a clip from “The Evil Weed” documentary (reviewed here). the point is made that the chemicals in cannabis are a similar shape to the endocannabiniods and that it was inevitable that eventually cannabis would meet it’s perfect partner – us. This is, of course, totally down to chance and isn’t a part of some great plan as the DVD explains.

The discovery of THC lead to the understanding of how it binds with ECS receptors and creates the effects we see.  Blocking the ECS receptors seems to cause tumours in rats. We are then are told about a diet drug which did just that, “Cannabis “munchies” inspire diet drug” (here). The drug was called “Rimonabant” and although it worked, users suffered all sorts of negative side effects including an increased risk of suicide and was eventually removed from sale (BBC 2007). Worse, studies on mice given Rimonabant showed they developed cancers, which showed that Endocannabiniods are also tumour regulators.

Endocannabiniods help us eat, sleep, forget and protect.

Being able to forget is important otherwise we will “burst” with memory overload.

What is really interesting is that Endocannabiniods are found in increased numbers when tumours begin to develop. We are then told that once the Endocannabiniods did a good kob of protecting us, but then we got into the industrial age with pollution and chemical doctoring of food, the ECS couldn’t keep up with the task as we were overwhelmed with free radicals and carcinogens, including from pharmecutical drugs. The ECS needed help, enter cannabis.

Now what follows is an interesting argument which can easily be portrayed as “pro pot nonsense”, and may be an example of a logical argument taken too far.The argument is that taking cannabis adds tot he ECS and so gives us added protection against cancer, in other words using cannabis is a preventative measure.

Another clip from “The evil weed” shows where cannabis receptors are – which is everywhere in the body, especially in the brain.

The pioneers

We meet some of the researchers studying cannabis and its uses. Dr Jeffrey Herenrather MD, an addiction specialist outlines the huge range of cannabis compounds, many of which have significant anti tumour properties at low enough doses to be effective without killing the patient. Dr David Bearman MD,author of “Cannabis is medicine”  cites articles comparing the carcinogenic effects of tobacco and cannabis and why its thought cannabis has these anti cancer effects. Dr Robert Melamede is clearly enthusiatic

There’s nothing that im[pacts on so many of our illnesses. You see, when I talk about these age related illnesses we’re all ageing but we don’t all come down with cardiovasular disease, auto immune disease … we don’t all come down with cancer, but the chances are we’re all going to come down with one of them

Jeffrey Herenrather explains that cannabis kills cancer cells in a range of ways:

Antiprolifative  – prevents cells from reproducing;
Antiangiogenic – prevents formation of new blood vessels needed for tumour growth
Antimetostatic – prevents cancer from spreading to other organisms
Apoptotic – Induces the cell to seek its own death

Healthy cells are left untouched and this is particularly important with brain cancer. The evidence, we are told is piling up in labs that cannabis causes cancer to commit suicide. An interview with Dr Manuel Guzman of Madrid University is shown with him making the same claims

So if all this is true, why don’t people know about it? Why isn’t money being raised by cancer charities to fund cannabis research?

Paul Armentano of the American law reform group NORML is thrilled that more research is being done now, but alot of the research is being done outside of the US. Because cannabis is prohibited research has been discouraged by the drug war. Janet Reno from the Clinton administration is shown stating that despite the moves to allow medical cannabis the federal government will continue to apply the prohibition law.

So why is cannabis connected with violent gangs and all the other drug war stuff?

Perhaps, the DVD suggests, governments are nervous because cannabis makes

people feel the past and the future are less important than the present

and that doesn’t sit well with those who rule over us. A clip from CNN is shown of someone claiming marijuana “just leads to bad things” and from Fox news – “marijuana is not a medicine”. There is a lot of groundless opposition to medical cannabis from prohibition supporters.

Despite allthis opposition we are told the pharmaceutical companies are preparing for a revolution as we’re shown GW pharms SATIVEX production, with another clip form “The evil weed” and shown some US TV reports about medical cannabis developments.

The Chemistry

Next we’re told about the chemical composition of cannabis – 421 chemicals, more than 60 of which are cannabinoids. Cannabis has an amazing spectrum of chemicals which touch on the ECS system  that regulates us. Another clip form cannabis the evil weed explains that THC protects the plant against UV light. Again we are told that using cannabis is a good idea as a preventative medicine.

There are four main compounds of interest: THC, CBD,THVC, CBC.

The many medical effects of these compounds are described. The American DEA is slowly changing its rhetoric on cannabis, blaming the harm of cannabis on smoking. The wholeplant seems to be more effective

The future

We are told that the recreational plant has been developed to maximise the THC content, perhaps we should develop plants to contain more CBD and the other cannabinoids, this is an argument we’ve heard before of course.

So why isn’t medical cannabis legalised? Again we’re told about the destructive effects of prohibition and shown the way the American medical cannabis “cafes” work, change is coming and it can’t come fast enough. But again we’re shown the federal view – change is to be rejected apparently. The US government knew about the anti cancer properties of cannabis since 1974, but the US government shut the research down and buried the results. But slowly, ever so slowly, things are moving forward.

Change is coming, at least in America.

This DVD is perhaps a little too enthusiastic in some of the claims it makes for the preventative use of cannabis, but it’s a well researched production which anyonbe interested int he debate is encouraged to watch. It certainly makes a change from the rabid prohibition supporting trash we get so much of in the mainstream media.

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You can buy a copy of “What if cannabis cured cancer” from Amazon for $19.90 – see here

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