Is there a place for dagga in medicine?

Medical marijuana being poured out of a prescription bottle. (Shutterstock)
Medical marijuana being poured out of a prescription bottle. (Shutterstock)

Dagga may have some medicinal qualities, but are the benefits of legalising it in South Africa worthwhile?

This is up for discussion at a two-day event by the Department of Social Development and the Central Drug Authority (CDA) taking place in Benoni on Thursday.

The discussion is expected to inform the South African Position Paper on Cannabis and will look at:

- the pros and cons of the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes and research,
- implications of the bio-psychosocial aspects of cannabis,
- religious perspective on cannabis use,
- cultural or traditional perspective on cannabis use,
- cannabis use and economic implications, as well as
- the legal perspective on decriminalisation versus criminalisation of cannabis

Read: Mystery bankie at cannabis conference

Delegates attending the talks were given a mystery zip lock bag containing three small seeds.

News24 reported that when making inquiries about the seeds, nobody seemed to know anything. Some said they had not seen them at all.

The seeds, speculated to be dagga seeds, was believed to be used for one of the presentations at the conference themed: ''Cannabis for Medicinal Use, Yes or No''

A picture of the seeds that was distributed was tweet by EWN.

Cannabis has been proven to have some medicinal qualities and medical marijuana is used commercially in several countries to treat certain ailments.

The medical innovation bill

The legalisation of medical marijuana was parachuted back into the spotlight after the late Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini’s “medical innovation bill” was revived in parliament.

Read: Top US doctor in favour of medical marijuana

The bill relapsed when Ambrosini died in August 16 last year after battling with late-stage lung cancer for more than a year. He admitted to using marijuana for medicinal purposes to treat his cancer when he first proposed the bill to parliament.

The bill calls for the immediate establishment of a medical centre where at least 100 patients can be legally treated with medical marijuana, a treatment Ambrosini described as “effective and harmless”.

But some experts disagree with this statement.

"People tend to think that natural substances have no side effects and are safe - but there is nothing further from the truth," says Dr Gerbus Muller, a clinical pharmacologist and toxicologist, and a former lecturer at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. "All medicines, be it alternative medicines or herbs, have side effects."

Read: When it is OK to give children medical pot

Common side effects of cannabis are an increase heart beat, a drop in blood pressure, blood-shot eyes, loss of motivation, anxiety and impaired cognitive functioning, among others.

Tight regulation to avoid abuse

Despite the side effects, he believes that dagga could be used in medicine as long as it is strictly regulated to avoid abuse of the substance. This includes controlling the production and processing of marijuana, which involves extracting the active ingredient from the plant and dispensing it at predetermined doses.

The cannabis plant has more than 100 active ingredients of which only one, 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is used in the production of medical marijuana. THC has a potent effect on the central nervous system and is also the chemical that causes euphoria, which is responsible for it being abused as a recreational drug.

Read: Casual marijuana use linked to changes in brain

Medical marijuana is extracted and slightly modified THC available in pill or liquid form. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved it for the treatment of nausea and vomiting in patients undergoing chemotherapy and also to stimulate appetite in patients with HIV.

It is also commonly used to treat, loss of appetite in cancer patients, spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis, post-operative nausea and vomiting, Tourette's Syndrome (a neurological disorder characterised by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalisations), and the skin condition pruritis, although it doesn't have FDA approval for the treatment of these conditions.

Muller noted that there are also other medicines that work just as well or better for the treatment of these conditions.

Read: Legalising marijuana cuts drug overdose deaths

Is it all a smokescreen?

Cansa’s head of research, Dr Carl Albrecht, believes that the medical benefits of cannabis have been over-hyped and that it may be a “smokescreen to try and decriminalise dagga… because from a pharmacological point of view it is not a big deal.” Like Muller he believes that there are other safe, registered medications available that work as well, or even better than cannabis to treat the various ailments.

According to Muller, there have also been a few documented cases suggesting that dagga may inhibit the growth of cancer cells. He stresses that there have only been a handful of anecdotal cases documented around the world, which does not serve as evidence that it could be used as a treatment for cancer.
"However, there are enough cases to suggest that it might be useful to further explore its potential cancer-killing effects," said Muller.

According to Albrecht there is no evidence showing cannabis to be an effective treatment for cancer. “The idea that cannabis can treat cancer is an urban legend,” he said. Cannabis derivatives have been used to treat side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, such as pain and nausea.

Research has linked the smoking of marijuana with an increased risk for developing lung and mouth cancers.

The conference, which is being attended by various groups in the country, will come to a close on Friday.

Additional reporting by Health24

Also read:

Marijuana causes disruptions similar to schizophrenia

Medical marijuana reduces epileptic seizures

Children getting poisoned by medical marijuana

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