Why Don’t We Know About the Possible Effects of Cannabinoids on Cancer

Before we get into the specific subject of cannabinoids and their effect on skin cancer, there are some facts everyone should know. These facts were taken directly from the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) page on cannabis and cannabinoids:

  1. Cannabinoids have been shown to kill cancer cells in the laboratory.
  2. Cannabis is not approved by the FDA for use as a cancer treatment.
  3. Two synthetic cannabinoids, dronabinol and nabilone, are approved by the FDA to prevent chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

Why is it important to know these things? The answer is to establish context. When we know these things, we have a better understanding of why cannabinoids, if they have so many benefits to offer, are not more widely used as treatments and therapeutic agents for diseases such as cancer.

Cannabinoids, in laboratory research, have “killed” cancer cells. Not stopped, not inhibited growth, but the NCI claims “killed.” Would that not make anyone—especially someone who has lost a loved one, watched someone go through cancer, or who treats patients daily—ask why we are not studying this specific potential of cannabinoids with the urgency that cancer demands?

The answer is political. All one has to do is look at the three facts above to understand what is happening. Synthetic drugs are man-made, not naturally derived. So, technically, cannabis is not used to make them. Therefore, the FDA approved two drugs—which, by the way, are as psychoactive as smoking marijuana—so that a pharmaceutical company could replicate THC and sell it as an antiemetic (prevent nausea and vomiting) for patients enduring chemotherapy.

The two synthetic cannabinoids were moved from Schedule I drug status (as all cannabinoids are) to, at first, heavily regulated Schedule II drugs, then to Schedule III. This opened the door for congressmen and women to begin arguing that cannabis should no longer be a Schedule I drug. To no avail thus far.

And these are the reasons that research and development of cannabinoids is so limited. The government refuses to remove them from Schedule I status and the FDA has not approved them. These persist despite the already known benefits of cannabinoids on many diseases and the real possibility that they could kill cancerous tumors. It is easy for the government to do this when the public is not educated about cannabinoids.

But once they are, how could there be nothing but outrage?

An Introduction to Skin Cancer

Skin cancer results from the growth of abnormal cells on the skin. It occurs when fatal DNA damages occur on the skin cells. These damages are usually triggered by exogenous factors such as the ultraviolet rays of the sun or tanning beds. These damages result in mutations that facilitate rapid multiplication of the cells and then turn them into malignant tumors.

Skin cancer can also be attributed to genetic defects.

There are several types of skin cancer. They range from the most common, basal cell carcinoma, to the most fatal, melanoma, to the extremely rare, Merkel cell carcinoma.

The statistics

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, at least 5.4 million non-melanoma skin cancer cases are recorded yearly. At least 3.3 million people are currently undergoing treatment.

There have been more skin cancer diagnoses than all other cancers combined. During the course of a lifetime, at least one in every five individuals will develop skin cancer.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, at least 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer daily. No less than a million Americans are living with melanoma. Studies by the same academy have concluded that basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are the most common types of skin cancer and can be cured if detected and treated early.

Cannabinoids and Skin Cancer

It is no longer news that cannabinoids have wide variety of health benefits. Cannabis contains at least 113 unique types of cannabinoids. These cannabinoids effectively treat symptoms of cancer and side effects associated with conventional cancer treatment.

According to the British Journal of Pharmacology, peer-review studies have proven that many cannabinoids such as cannabidiol, cannabigerol and cannabidivarin tend to shut down cells that grow without control. Uncontrolled growth of skin cells results in skin cancers and skin allergies.

In the study published in the journal, the effects of the three cannabinoids on human skin cells were documented. CBD was the most effective in combating DNA damage or unwanted DNA activities. More attention is focused on cannabidiol because it doesn’t have the psychoactive effect of THC.

The researchers in this study have also agreed that phytocannabinoids, such as CBD, that have the potential to inhibit DNA activity may also be a new treatment that may help prevent uncontrolled or unwanted genetic activities on a large scale.

Additionally, a study conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Public Health found that cannabinoids reduce skin cancer by at least 90 percent within a period of 20 weeks.   

Symptoms of Skin Cancer That May Be Treated by Cannabinoids

  • Antineoplastic properties: laboratory and animal studies have proven that medical cannabis may inhibit or completely stop growth of tumors.
  • Neuropathy: Neuropathy is a term that describes damage to the nerve. It is a complication of cancer treatments. Patients commonly experience weakness, numbness, tingling or burning sensations in the hands and feet due to neuropathy. Because cannabinoids have neuroprotective properties, they could potentially be used to prevent neuropathy. 
  • Antiemetic: Cannabinoids can be used to prevent nausea and vomiting.
  • Appetite stimulant: Cannabinoids can counter the loss of appetite often experienced by patients going through cancer treatment.
  • Mood enhancement: Cannabinoids can treat anxiety and depression.
  • Pain management: Cannabinoids can stimulate the body’s own painkilling properties. The anti-inflammatory properties of CBD can treat the pain of nerve damage.

The NCI—the government’s own authority on cancer—lists some known benefits of cannabinoids plain and clear. And, more importantly, it blatantly admits that cannabinoids have killed cancer cells in lab rats. The British study above found that cannabinoids inhibit uncontrolled cell growth.

We don’t have to ask why anymore. We know why cannabinoids are not being more rigorously used and studied—because of special interest groups and residual propaganda-based fear.

Congressmen and women, clinicians, farmers and—most importantly—patients are demanding the research, development and use of cannabinoids. The time for us, as professionals, to rigorously educate and advocate for the benefits of cannabinoids is long overdue.


Goldde N, Jakobs M, Bald T, Tuting T, Gaffal E (2015). Differential role of cannabinoids in the pathogenesis of skin cancer. Life Sci; 138: 35-40.

Jun’ichi Nakajima et. al. (2013). Structure‐dependent inhibitory effects of synthetic cannabinoids against 12‐O‐tetradecanoylphorbol‐13‐acetate‐induced inflammation and skin tumor promotion in mice. Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology. Web. June 22, 2018. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jphp.12082

Cannabis and Cannabinoids (2017). National Cancer Institute. Web. June 22, 2018. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/patient/cannabis-pdq

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