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Experts issue warning about claims that marijuana can cure cancer and other diseases

There's an endless supply of claims on the internet that pot will cure nearly every known disease, including cancer, but physicians and other experts have advised patients to proceed with caution before buying into the hype. (Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Thirty states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of marijuana in some form, and there's now an endless supply of claims on the internet that pot will cure nearly every known disease, including cancer.

Physicians and other experts have advised patients to proceed with caution before buying into the hype until there is substantiated science to back up the assertions.

“We know that a component in cannabis — CBD — might be useful in treating cancer,” Dr. Joseph A. Califano III told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “But we don’t know if marijuana can stop or cure it. In some cases, cannabis might make things worse. It’s going to take time to find out."

Califano is the director of the Head and Neck Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego.

Because of marijuana's classification as a Schedule 1 drug, it has been difficult for the medical and science communities to gain approval for research and funding.

“What’s happening right now with marijuana reminds me of tobacco at the end of World War II," Califano said. "There was an explosion in its use, but little science to let people know what we were dealing with.”

What about the 'experts' at the pot shops?

The people who work in marijuana shops, often called "budtenders," typically aren't medical doctors or scientists, which means they have no formal training to diagnose or recommend strains that will "cure" an ailment.

Zach Lazarus, who co-founded A Green Alternative marijuana store in Otay Mesa, California, told the Union-Tribune that his employees' job is to sell marijuana — not prescribe it.

“Our employees are not licensed physicians, nor do they pretend otherwise,” Lazarus said. “They just help facilitate the sale of marijuana. The consumer uses his own discretion, and hopefully advice from his physician if he needs it.”

What about the articles that say marijuana cures cancer?

It's easy to find articles that tout cannabis' miracle cures:

A 64-year-old man said his homemade cannabis oil cured him of liver cancer.

An Oklahoma woman said she used CBD oil to cure her stage 4 breast cancer.

Another article, headlined "Marijuana Kills Cancer Cells, Admits the U.S. National Cancer Institute," recently made the rounds online.

While some of the findings that article refers to are true, the information is misleading because it is based on the National Institutes of Health's preclinical studies. The NIH studies have "shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth, and blocking the development of blood vessels needed by tumors to grow.

"Laboratory and animal studies have shown that cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells while protecting normal cells," according to the NIH website.

A couple of important points to note: cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells and the studies were conducted using animals and in lab dishes, not humans. Often, treatments that work on mice don't work on people.

What does the American Cancer Society say?

Some early clinical trials of using cannabinoids in treating cancer in humans have shown that its use can be safe but it hasn't been shown to control or help cure the disease.

"Relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences," according to the American Cancer Society.

Does it help with the side effects of cancer treatments?

Some studies have shown that THC, the chemical in marijuana that makes people feel "high," has been shown to increase appetite and reduce nausea, according to the NIH. It may also decrease pain, inflammation, and muscle-control problems.

CBD may also help decrease pain and inflammation. Researchers are also looking at other possible uses, including the treatment of addiction and mental illnesses.

Dr. Donald Abrams, an oncologist at the University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine told GreenState that he has had a high proportion of cancer patients who used cannabis and it helped with the side effects.

But "if cannabis definitively cured cancer, I would have expected that I would have a lot more survivors," Abrams said.

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