Marijuana as a lupus treatment may sound psychedelic — but research efforts are ramping up!
While possession and use of marijuana is still prohibited by federal law which supersedes state law, 44 states have medical marijuana laws that allow for the use of the drug.
2 states explicitly permit the use of medical marijuana to treat lupus: Illinois and New Hampshire. 7 other states permit the use of medical marijuana for lupus on the recommendation of a physician. And, as you’ve surely heard on the news, recreational marijuana is legal in 8 states and Washington D.C.
Despite these changes, the long prohibition on marijuana has had an impact on research. There have been few studies evaluating the efficacy and safety of marijuana – though the existing research and anecdotal evidence suggest there may be value for people living with autoimmune diseases.
NOTE: Always be aware of federal and state laws before using any substance. NORML, a group working to reform marijuana laws, provides information on state medical marijuana laws.
Are people with lupus using marijuana?
Just reading the internet, blogs & support forums, it can seem like a lot of people are using marijuana to battle symptoms of lupus.
To gain insight into the actual usage levels, LupusCorner ran an anonymous survey to learn more about peoples’ experiences with the drug.
Before checking out the results, click below to take the 1-minute survey and share your experiences with fellow Lupus Warriors!
So, are people with lupus using the drug?
NOTE: LupusCorner did not attempt to randomize or organize the participants in any way. Since people could self-select to participate, it is possible that these numbers to not accurately reflect the usage rates. Still, this survey may give some insights into the habits of people with lupus.
Thus far, 781 people with lupus have taken the marijuana survey. The results of which were:
- 51% of respondents had never taken the drug in any variant.
- 36% reported currently using marijuana in some capacity.
- 12% used the drug previously but decided to stop
Methods of marijuana use
There are a number of ways ingest the drug, but 71% of users reported smoking it. 29% reported using non-smoking methods such as eating it.
40% reported using CBD oil.
CBD stands for ‘cannabidiol‘ — CBD is one of 113 active cannabinoids in cannabis. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds in the body (in both the brain and in the immune system). CBD has made national news in controversial stories about epilepsy, in particular pediatric epilepsy where some research has shown that it can reduce seizures.
In contrast to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which has psychotropic properties, CBD does not seem to have any intoxicating effects. Research is being conducted to further examine the effects of the various cannabinoids. Interestingly, some researchers have voiced the need to differentiate CBD from the psychoactive components in future research.
Marijuana and the immune system
There is limited research into the value of using marijuana specifically for lupus. However, there is a growing body of work that is exploring how cannabis and cannabinoids impact the immune system generically.
This focus on the immune system is important as a complete understanding of the immune response will help people develop drugs to decrease inflammation. Unnecessary inflammation causes damage in a number of autoimmune diseases beyond lupus including rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), multiple sclerosis (MS) and many more.
A review published in 2010 provides insight into both the complexities of the immune system and the developing understanding of the role of endocannabinoid system. The researchers shared a few major takeaways from this research:
- “Cannabinoids have been tested in several experimental models of autoimmune disorders such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, colitis and hepatitis and have been shown to protect the host from the pathogenesis through induction of multiple anti-inflammatory pathways.”
- This finding suggests that cannabinoids can help decrease inflammation in multiple ways by interfering with the process through which the body generates inflammation
- “Cannabinoids suppress inflammatory response and subsequently attenuate disease symptoms. This property of cannabinoids is mediated through multiple pathways such as induction of apoptosis in activated immune cells, suppression of cytokines and chemokines at inflammatory sites and upregulation of FoxP3+ regulatory T cells.”
- This expands on the point above and mentions some of the actual cells and proteins (cytokines) involved in the regulation of the immune system.
Future marijuana research
Beyond legal barriers to funding and completing research on marijuana, there are problems with ensuring that the plants being used are consistent. This problem is examined by FiveThirtyEight who notes that the genetic diversity in different strands of cannabis are as different as between, “humans and chimpanzees.”
This is a problem for using marijuana as a drug as the consistency of the product can be hard to ensure. And, differences in cannabis could lead to different effects. Obviously this can make it difficult to ensure that the drug is consistent within a trial — but, it also makes comparing results more challenging.
Perspectives on marijuana
Returning to the LupusCorner survey, there seems to be interest and a growing belief that cannabis provides value for people with lupus.
96% of people reported that their doctor had NOT talked to them about the possibility of using cannabis to battle lupus.
However, among the 381 people that had used the drug to battle lupus, 83% of people would recommend marijuana to another person with lupus. It’s not hard to imagine why when 63% of people reported no side effects from cannabis and the most common side effect reported was changes in appetite (28%).
As with any change to your treatment plan, you should always speak with your lupus treatment team before starting any new interventions.