These street drugs could save patient lives-but we’re too afraid to use them.
Dr David Casarett wanted the ground to open up and swallow him.
"It has zero medical benefits whatsoever".
And he was pretty sure he was right. He had to be. Casarett never learned about it during medical school nor had he heard of it being used in the clinic. As far as he was concerned, it had no place in the realm of medicine.
His patient, a retired English professor in her 70’s, just stared at him, a mix of amusement and pity painted on her face. She had pancreatic cancer, and as a palliative care physician, it was his job to be up to date on the best methods available to keep her comfortable.
But he hadn’t been prepared for this.
"Could marijuana help me, doctor?”, she'd asked.
When he replied, she just smiled and nodded. The woman reached into her handbag and pulled out a thick stack of papers; randomized controlled trials discussing the benefits of medical marijuana for conditions like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
"Maybe you should read these before offering an opinion...doctor.”
That night, Dr Casarett read the articles and a whole bunch more. When he saw her the next morning, he told her it had promise and she should try it.
"I tried it six months ago, doctor. It was amazing. I've been using it every day since.”
And she’s not the only one. Over a million patients rely on medical marijuana for symptom control in the US alone—many millions more use it around the world. As regulations relax around the control and distribution of cannabis globally, the body of research touting the benefits (and potential risks) of marijuana is growing rapidly. To some, it seems like an impossible panacea. The number of conditions and symptoms that cannabis can potentially treat flies in the face of the model that we’re all used to—one drug for one receptor or pathway. But as researchers continue to explore the endocannabinoid system and the function of exogenous cannabinoids within that system, a pronounced shift is taking place within the medical world.
We’re no strangers to the therapeutic potential of plant-inspired medications. Aspirin and digoxin are two classic examples. But these fit neatly into the traditional treatment paradigm of one molecule for one receptor or pathway. Cannabis is a whole new beast. Though synthetic cannabinoids and isolates are sometimes prescribed in practice, clinical evidence supports the existence of the entourage effect—a synergistic benefit that is derived by using the whole plant rather than a specific phytochemical within it. With hundreds of cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids working together to create that effect (and impacting different patients in different ways), the implications are clear: cannabis is not a one-size-fits-all kind of drug.
And this matters. A lot. It matters because this treatment paradigm lies outside the comfort zone of most doctors. Many of us are highly unlikely to prescribe it, if given the opportunity to do so, precisely because we don’t really understand it.
In the early 20th century, the situation was very different. When Harry Anslinger, an American politician who, for dubious reasons, decided to wage a war on cannabis, the American Medical Association was staunchly opposed to it. Numerous members spoke out against Anslinger’s claims about the dangers of cannabis and said that proposals to outlaw it were absolute rot. But their complaints didn’t matter in the end. A plant that had been used medicinally for millennia was now suddenly a threat to society and eventually criminalized.
Over the past couple of decades, cannabis has slowly made a comeback. But the stigma still exists and for the most part, it’s not a part of medical school curricula. Many doctors don’t know enough about medical cannabis to consider prescribing it. In a profession driven by evidence-based guidelines, that’s understandable. With hundreds of potential cannabis strains capable of treating dozens of different types of symptoms and patients, performing RCTs that study one specific formulation in the context of one specific condition, is nigh impossible. And so for the most part, cannabis has remained a fringe treatment within medicine. But according to Dr Casarett, and many other physicians working in this space—where the use of medical marjuana is legal—our bias against the drug is the real reason we won’t entertain the prospect of prescribing it.
The stigma surrounding cannabis is compounded by the lack of education around it. Currently, medical education around cannabis is driven largely by expert conferences such as Cannabis Europa (London) and CannMed (US). However, the stigma (and evolving state of research) still holds many physicians back. Dr Casarett argues that it’s our responsibility to learn about and acknowledge cannabis because whether we like (or know about) it or not, our patients are using it. With 3% of adults worldwide admitting to being regular marijuana users, there’s a pretty good chance that many of your patients are too.
This leads us to an important question: if cannabis—a plant which has been used medically for thousands of years and was at one point part of medical practice—can be so easily written off by the medical community thanks to decades of stigmatization, is it possible that we’ve been ignoring other potential wonder plants too?
Springing up like mushrooms
In the 1960’s, another plant was slowly sprouting into the halls of medicine.
Dr Timothy Leary, a Harvard psychologist, was studying the effects of psilocybin (a psychedelic found in magic mushrooms), when he received a sample of something that would revolutionize neuroscience as they knew it—LSD. This consciousness-altering drug, which had been accidentally developed by a Swiss chemist trying to create a stimulant, was sent to Dr Leary in a bid to further understand the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
Psychedelics had been used in shamanic rituals for millennia but now, for the first time, they were finding themselves moved into the labs and test tubes of distinguished researchers.
And so began almost two decades of fervent investigation into these mind-altering drugs. Over 1000 research papers were published in the 50’s and 60’s and the results were astounding. In study after study, LSD showed that it could treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction where other drugs could not. But, as these research drugs found their way onto the black market, prohibitions inevitably rolled in and psychedelics were largely forgotten about.
Today, 50 years after LSD was first banned, psychedelics are making a comeback.
Across the world, microdoses of LSD are used by entrepreneurs to sustain focus and energy, psychotherapists are secretly integrating magic mushrooms into their sessions, and clinics are using MDMA to treat refractory PTSD. Perhaps most importantly, regulators are increasingly approving psychedelic studies for the first time in decades, allowing researchers to fully explore the potential of psychedelics in treating a bunch of mental illnesses.
This growing acceptance of psychedelics as a potential source of treatment led to the opening of the world’s first psychedelic research unit in London this year, the Centre for Psychedelic Research. The research findings show promise—suggesting no link between mental illness and psychedelic use. However, as the research world warms up to the idea of using psychedelics to treat mental illness, those who will likely be prescribing it don’t seem to agree.
In a survey looking at psychiatrist’s attitudes towards hallucinogens, researchers found that most psychiatrists still believe that the use of psychedelics increases the risk of long-term cognitive problems and mental health risks. Interestingly, the younger psychiatrists were more likely to be optimistic about the potential of psychedelic use in mental illness. Older psychiatrists, who perhaps still remember the demonization of psychedelics that occurred in the mid-late 20th century, were more likely to view it as hazardous.
Like cannabis, psychedelics will likely face the same resistance from the medical community due to the stigma attached to them. As the research grows in favor of using cannabis and psychedelics for specific conditions, the hope would be that the medical community is able to move past scepticism and embrace these medications as legitimate tools in their therapeutic arsenal. But this first requires an acknowledgement that the stigma exists and that it doesn’t have a place in medicine. Ultimately, we’re scientists, and if the data tells us that cannabis and psychedelics will help our patients, then we’d better start listening. [click to tweet]
What’s your view? Should psychedelics be widely available? Should they be available on prescription, and more importantly, should psychedelics and cannabis become a standard part of care? Should they not be used in medicine at all? We’d love to hear your opinions! Please let us know your thoughts in the comments box below!