Medical marijuana not a miracle drug, says cancer society

PETALING JAYA: The National Cancer Society of Malaysia has cautioned against accepting cannabis or marijuana as a cure or treatment for cancer amid reports that the government is considering legalising use of the drug for medical purposes.

Dr M Murallitharan.

Dr M Murallitharan, the group’s medical director, told FMT current research only shows that medical marijuana helps alleviate symptoms of pain or nausea brought about by conventional treatment such as chemotherapy or cancer itself.

“A lot of people are getting it mixed up, thinking medical marijuana will cure cancer. People today think medical marijuana is the best thing since sliced bread, but there is almost no evidence at the moment of this.”

He said in the context of cancer treatment, only several studies so far had shown that medical marijuana works for relief of certain symptoms like vomiting, nausea or gastrointestinal problems that come because of chemotherapy.

“While some cancers are painless, some are especially painful to go through as they affect the nerves, so medical marijuana is used to relieve them of this pain. But that’s all there is here.”

He was responding to a report by FMT quoting Sanchia Aranda, the outgoing president of the Union for International Cancer Control, as urging Malaysia to exercise caution in the matter.

This follows a report by Bloomberg last month in which Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Xavier Jayakumar said the Cabinet had “very briefly” discussed the medicinal value of marijuana.

He also said early and informal talks on amending the relevant laws had begun.

Aranda recommended that Malaysia consider the approach of Australia, where talk of legalisation of medical marijuana is underway in the states of New South Wales and Victoria through government-funded clinical trials.

She said this would allow for the collection of localised data.

Murallitharan lauded Aranda’s suggestion but proposed that Malaysia look at Australia and other countries like Canada that have legalised medical marijuana, to see what their trials conclude and make a decision based on that.

“Since all these other countries are doing trials as well, rather than spending huge amounts of money doing broad research on marijuana when we have other more important research areas to focus on, Malaysia can sit back for now.

“We can leverage off this later, but we can also do small studies if we really want to get into it. I say we wait for their findings and make a decision on legalising the drug once we are more well-advised on the matter,” he said.

He added that it would be a waste of government resources to start funding similar trials here, as other drugs in the market could already do the work of providing instant relief to cancer patients.

He said the issue as a whole was complex and involved various social matters which must be tackled first.

For instance, he asked what would happen if medical marijuana was available over the counter at pharmacies for everyone to buy.

“Should we rush into legalising medical marijuana as a whole? I don’t think so. It’s a really crazy thing to do because if we do that, we are looking at opening the floodgates and creating problems in terms of regulation and enforcement.

“There are already clear cases of addiction issues surrounding similar drugs. We don’t want to go down the road of yet another opioid epidemic. Or do we want things to be like in the US with their guns and mass shooting problem?”

He acknowledged however that his concerns were limited only to cancer treatment, and that medical marijuana could aid in other diseases and conditions.

But he advised that adequate research and medical evaluations be carried out first, even on scopes outside of cancer treatment.

He recommended working with the international community to come up with conclusive data on the benefits of medical marijuana and pooling resources to study the matter at length before any decision is made.

Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad previously said cannabis oil was still classified as a dangerous drug under the Dangerous Drugs Act. He said those found guilty of dealing in or possessing cannabis products would be subject to severe punishment.

His ministry maintains there is no evidence that cannabis oil can be used as medication.

Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah meanwhile said medical marijuana can only be used for research, not as alternative medicine.