Canadian Hemp activist Rick Simpson has been fighting for several years for the legalization of marijuana, THC-heavy hemp, and has been attempting to promote some very aggressive claims as to the curative effects of THC in the form of hemp oil. In November, Mr. Simpson’s residence in Amherst, Nova Scotia was raided by the RCMP and he has since been in exile in Europe after attending a cannabis conference in Amsterdam. Simpson’s website promotes the use of hemp oil, derived from the buds of cannabis and not the seeds, as the cure for “almost every disease.” The type of hyperbole on Simpson’s website and the documentary Tears of the Phoenix deserves a skeptical eye and I will attempt to apply it here.
The Endocannabinoid System
The discovery of the system of receptors in the body that respond to THC, one of the active ingredients in the hemp plant, and other so called “cannabinoids” was made in the early 1990′s. The two receptors, the CB1, which is found in the central nervous system, and the CB2, associated with the immune system, have since been heavily studied. The Wikipedia article on the health effects of cannabis lays out most of the accepted information about these receptors and is a good resource. CB1 receptors have been around for a very long time, having been identified in many mammals, fish, birds, and many invertebrates, with CB2 receptors appearing only in mammals thus far.
The molecules that attach to these receptors, called ligands, have been identified in the body as well. The myriad effects of anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl are still being teased out in basic research. Suffice it to say that the endocannabinoid system is very complex, the CB1 receptors tying into appetite and memory and the CB2 identified as immune system regulators.
“A cure for almost every disease known to man”
Some of the many cures and therapeutic effects espoused on Simpson’s website include:
Burns, Ulcers, Warts and Moles
“Rejuvenates Vital Organs”
…and many others. What rings all of the skeptical bells is the cure-all claims that many THC advocates are making. Given the the many active biological agents found in cannabis, and the hundreds of animal and cell culture studies that have been done (PMed listed over 12000 articles with the search term ‘cannabis’) it is certainly plausible that cannabis has positive health effects, but the most glaring indication of fantastical thinking on Simpson’s website is the over-reliance on anecdotal information.
What Are They Smoking?
As with most herbal remedies, testimonials abound, but is there real evidence to support the effects that Simpson and others are claiming? Cochrane has 3 reviews concerning cannabis, three of which are complete and show no evidence to support or refute cannabis in the treatment of Schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome or Dementia. Cochrane is still studying cannabis for the treatment of nausea in cancer and in symptom relief in HIV/AIDS patients, so conclusions have not been drawn.
Human trials are still sparse, but a few are very promising. Pain relief is a active area of research with a recent paper showing good results for cancer patients. Many of the diseases mentioned above are concerned with inflammatory responses in the body, as CB2 receptors act to regulate inflammation, perhaps they are great targets for study. The big claim is the one about cancer. There are a few articles about the potential of cannabinoids in the treatment of cancer, but most them concluded that more research was needed. The effects of cannabinoids on programed cell death are promising, but I could find no studies linking the ingestion of hemp oil and the shrinkage or disappearance of tumors: the evidence is all anecdotal so far.
What is worse, the cardiovascular claims made by Simpson and his followers may run counter to current evidence. Rimonabant, a CB1 antagonist, meaning it blocks the CB1 receptor from accepting stimulation, as been shown in numerous trials to improve insulin sensitivity in diabetes patients and is tied to improvement in the cardiovascular system. This tells me that the claim that cannabis, containing cannabinoids that will stimulate the CB1 system, may be having the opposite effect than claimed. The following is a quote from a study on endogenous cannabinoids and its effect in metabolic syndrome:
“Pathological overactivation of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in various forms of shock and heart failure may contribute to the underlying pathology and cardiodepressive state by the activation of the cardiovascular CB1 receptors. Furthermore, tonic activation of CB1 receptors by endocannabinoids has also been implicated in the development of various cardiovascular risk factors in obesity/metabolic syndrome and diabetes, such as plasma lipid alterations, abdominal obesity, hepatic steatosis, inflammation, and insulin and leptin resistance. ” [ref]
To be fair, there is an indication that cannabinoids can be helpful, and further study in human trials should be encouraged. According to one drug company, Cannabis Science,
“…cannabis has been recommended as a treatment for many diseases and ailments in anecdotal reports and scientific literature. Some of these ailments include: Pain, arthritic conditions, migraine headaches, anxiety, epileptic seizures, insomnia, loss of appetite, GERD (chronic heartburn), nausea, glaucoma, AIDS wasting syndrome, depression, bipolar disorder (particularly depression-manic-normal), multiple sclerosis, menstrual cramps, Parkinson’s, trigeminal neuralgia (tic douloureux), high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and bladder incontinence.”
There is much evidence for this, though Cannabis Science has no links to any of its research. The standard of care for cannabis for any cure cannot, as yet, be established.
The Veneer of Pseudoscience and Conspiracy
The two main fallacies that Simpson employs are the natural fallacy and the argument of a conspiracy by Big Pharma to withhold the cure for cancer and other ailments. Selling cannabis as the all-natural cure-all is a no-brainer because it is a standard tune in the herbal industry’s bag. Of course, the be fair, Rick Simpson is not selling anything – he is just disseminating information on the wonders of cannabis and some very simple techniques of distilling hemp oil from the hemp, provided that you can get a pound or two of it.
The dangers inherent in this seem only to be the illegality of growing it, without a license, and the flammable gases produced by boiling off the solvent, like naptha or isopropyl alcohol. Both of these dangers are not inconsiderable. Cannabis is generally accepted as a very safe drug to take, and ingesting it without smoking is desirable, considering the recent evidence of DNA changes and the high amount of ammonia and other toxic inhalants produced from smoking it.
The Big Pharma fallacy seems largely baseless, given the intense scrutiny given to cannabinoids by researchers the world over. This claim is made using very sparse circumstantial evidence: “they used to sell them in the 19th century, but because you can’t patent a plant they can’t make money — therefore they will not develop this obvious cure”. Given the ability of a pharmaceutical company to patent any medicines derived from the plant, when it is purified, regulated, shown to be efficacious and monitored properly, there does not seem to be any disincentive to develop cancer therapies, especially in light of recent Spanish endeavours.
What is obvious is that certain societal misgivings about the use and abuse of psychotropic drugs is getting in the way of research, development and proper public health policy. The current government’s ignorance of the positive findings at the Safe-injection Site in Vancouver, the probable prosecution of Rick Simpson should he return to Canada, and the continued illegality of marijuana despite public pressure to decriminalize it, all are hot-potatoes, politically, and may be impeding the availability of funding to properly study cannabis. In the mean time, advocates like Rick Simpson are not helping matters by making wild claims using anecdotal evidence. Simpson and his followers, which appear to be many, do have something: there is a lot of very interesting research. However we need science to help us navigate the hyperbole, and making claims for all-powerful wonder cures only ensures greater confusion in the matter.