In the US, so far 29 states and DC have legalised medical marijuana, as modern research has suggested that weed can help treat conditions like chronic pain and the side effects of chemotherapy. Some companies, though, are abusing the growing acceptance of weed for medicinal purposes. On Wednesday, the FDA reported that it has sent warning letters to four companies claiming that marijuana-based products can treat or cure cancer.
Between them, the four companies— Greenroads Health, Natural Alchemist, That’s Natural!, and Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises—sold more than 25 products claiming to treat cancer and other serious diseases. The products in question contained cannabidiol, a compound in marijuana that has not been approved by the FDA for any medical use. You can get CBD in a variety of forms, including in oil drops, capsules, syrups, teas and creams. One product from That’s Natural!, for example, claimed that cannabidiol “makes cancer cells commit ‘suicide’ without killing other cells.” Another product from Greenroads Health claimed that “CBD [has] anti-proliferative properties that inhibit cell division and growth in certain types of cancer, not allowing the tumour to grow” and could treat “asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis, autism, bipolar disorder and various types of cancer.” And in a testimonial for Natural Alchemist, one customer claimed CBD had not only helped cure their arthritis, but also treat traumatic brain injuries in military friends of their son.
In its letters, the FDA notes that companies not only made these claims on their websites, but across social media. The FDA noted that the cannabis claims are part of a larger uptick in unapproved products claiming to treat cancer. When bogus health claims make their way onto social media, they can be especially damaging, not only spreading false information but steering people away from treatments that might actually work. Earlier this week, a story from BuzzFeed noted how false health advice spreads on the social network Pinterest, with claims that, for instance, “vitamin B17” could be a “cancer treatment” getting saved to more than 16,000 boards. Yikes.
“There are a growing number of effective therapies for many cancers,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb in a statement. “When people are allowed to illegally market agents that deliver no established benefit they may steer patients away from products that have proven, anti-tumour effects that could extend lives.”
While some medications containing synthetic THC (another cannabis compound) are FDA-approved, medical use of marijuana is still controversial and, at least at the federal level, illegal. The truth is, because of marijuana’s legal status, there haven’t been a whole lot of large, long-term studies tracking the side effects and efficacy of cannabidiol for medical use, though early research has been promising. Lack of research is one reason the agency has so far steered clear of greenlighting products containing cannabidiol for medical use.
So if you see a weed lollipop claiming it can cure whatever ails you, chances are it’s probably little-more than a candy-coated lie. [FDA]