Is the NIH Neutral on Cannabis Use Among Cancer Patients?


Navigating the federal government’s position on medical cannabis can be difficult at times. On the one hand, federal law still considers marijuana and THC-derived medicines illegal. On the other hand, industrial hemp and CBD are perfectly legal. Then you have entities like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) whose ambiguity could lead one to believe Washington has taken a neutral position.

The NIH’s National Cancer Institute has published an online document discussing cannabis and cannabinoids as medical options. The document discusses cannabis in relation to cancer, chronic pain, and a few other conditions, but with an emphasis mainly on cancer. It demonstrates a level of ambiguity that can be hard to wrap your brain around.

Definition of Terms

The document starts with a definition of terms. Unfortunately, the NIH doesn’t get it right. Its first definition conflates cannabis with marijuana. The implication is that all cannabis is marijuana, though that’s not true. Industrial hemp is also a variety of cannabis. It is not marijuana, genetically or in its cannabinoid profile. The key difference is that industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC by volume.

The definition portion of the document goes on to make a clear distinction between Delta-9 THC and cannabidiol (CBD). To their credit, they explain that the two cannabinoids have different effects on the brain. Delta-9 THC is intoxicating while CBD is not.

A Mention of State Laws

Next in the document is a discussion of varying state laws. The NIH acknowledges that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Yet it also acknowledges that various states have implemented their own laws to allow for medical cannabis.

This is probably where the document is most ambiguous. There is a clear conflict between federal and state laws. However, the NIH doesn’t go anywhere near the question of whether states are defying federal rules. It is as though both sets of rules exist and both parties are letting one another be.

Citing Cannabis Studies

The final section of the document mentions a variety of studies and what they show about the efficacy of cannabis as a medicine. To their credit, the NIH acknowledges studies that show cannabis can be helpful in alleviating chronic pain. In terms of treating cancer patients, the document cites studies both for and against.

It is interesting to note that, according to the clinicians behind the website, cancer patients use medical cannabis for a variety of reasons. Some say that cannabis helps relieve the nausea and vomiting associated with treatment. Others utilize cannabis to relieve the pain of the disease and cancer-related surgeries.

Once again, the NIH document does not come down on either side. It simply presents the studies as sources of information. Whoever wrote this document appears to have made a concerted effort to allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

Looking the Other Way

What we appear to have is a situation in which the federal government is choosing to look the other way. Marijuana remains a Schedule I controlled substance. That much is indisputable. But Washington has done nothing while thirty-seven states have enacted legalized cannabis programs. Nineteen of those states allow medical cannabis in some form. The remaining eighteen allow both medical and recreational use.

At this point, the federal government would be foolish to come down on cancer patients who choose to use medical cannabis. Bureaucrats and lawmakers would be deemed as wholly lacking in compassion should they ever decide to enforce federal law. Does that mean agencies like the NIH are neutral on the topic? It would seem that way.

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