First it was a cough. Then it was bronchitis. Then it was time to say goodbye to Michelle Aldrich.
The year 2011 was supposed to be a good one for the 66-year-old. That June, she and her husband, Michael, were feted with a lifetime achievement award by High Times magazine for their four decades of work on marijuana legalization. Yet something was off. She was smoking a lot, maybe more than ever.
And she couldn't get high.
In the fall of that year — a bad time for the local marijuana movement, as the federal Justice Department began shutting down hundreds of California medical cannabis dispensaries — Aldrich went in to see a series of doctors for what she thought was a flu that just refused to go away.
After six weeks of progressively worse diagnoses — flu became bronchitis, which became pneumonia — a CT scan revealed the cause behind the "heat" she felt in the middle of her chest. A tumor, "poorly-differentiated non-small cell adenocarcinoma." In other words, stage 3 lung cancer.
Lung cancer is a killer, with nearly 70 percent of new cases resulting in deaths, according to statistics published by the National Cancer Institute. "I thought I was going to die," Aldrich says from her Marina District apartment. But she didn't. And now, she is busy telling anyone who will listen that, along with diet and chemotherapy, a concoction of highly concentrated cannabis oil eliminated her cancer in less than four months.
She was diagnosed in January 2012; by April, CT scans revealed that the tumor had shrunk by 50 percent. Her surgeon at California Pacific Medical Center removed what was left of the tumor that May. (CPMC did not return calls by press time.) She isn't "officially" cured yet — a cancer patient needs five years of cancer-free living to beat the disease — but her most-recent scan, on March 27, was all clear. Her doctors — one of whom noted the effect of "homeopathic treatments, including hemp oil" to reprogram the cancer cells to kill themselves — "are floored," she says. "They've never seen anything like it."
Constance Finley has. She says that, over the last year, a "world-class oncologist" — who for now wants to remain nameless, perhaps to preserve his practice — has referred 26 people to her, a skilled East Bay marijuana grower who knows how to distill a pound of high-grade bud to an ounce of oil.
The oil itself is simple. Anyone with a bucket, a pile of pot, and a solvent can make it. First devised by Canadian cannabis pioneer Rick Simpson — from which it derives one of its names, Simpson oil — the oil is merely cannabis distilled to its essential active cannabinoids, with as much of the plant material as possible removed using the solvent. Aldrich's providers of what they call "milagro oil" at Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz use Everclear; Finley uses 99 isopropryl alcohol.
The oil also is extremely potent. Finley says her concoction is 72 percent tetrahydracannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets you stoned, and which in lab studies has shrunk tumors in rats; and 11 percent cannabidiol, or CBD, the cannabinoid in marijuana that studies suggest doesn't get you high but has anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties.
It may not be for everyone: Patients start with a dose as small as a grain of rice before ramping up to a full gram per day, a hit that can leave some people woozy and dizzy — uncomfortably high. And it's expensive. A pound of good bud runs $2,500 to $3,000 in the Bay Area, and Finley ships to anywhere in California. Aldrich says a three-month regimen cost her $1,200 a month; Finley charges $5,500 for a two-month cycle.
But it might be money well-spent. All 26 of Finley's referrals had stage 4 cancers — brain tumors, colon cancers, lung cancers — which means the malignant growths had metastasized to other organs. Most had prognoses of a few months to live, some had less than six weeks. All complemented modern Western medicine treatments such as chemotherapy with the concentrated oil — and all but one have survived, she says. A patient's prognosis can very widely depending on the type of cancer, but the disease is a reliable killer at stage 4, meaning Finley's patients' 96 percent survival rate is unheard-of.
"I'm not a stoner," she says now, almost defensively, noting that classmates at Oakland-based cannabis grow college Oaksterdam University, where she honed her cultivator skills, at times mistook her for an undercover cop. "It was against my own prejudice that this could really be true."
These survival stories are becoming more common. One of the most high-profile was the case of Montana toddler Cash Hyde, diagnosed with a brain tumor at 20 months, whose family credits cannabis oil for keeping the tumor at bay and keeping him alive — until a change in Montana state law cut off his access to oil for a few months. The tumor returned and he died in November, at age four.
These stories are remarkable, but for now they're also just stories — which means they're all but worthless to the medical community, which needs hard data. "Anecdotes are not evidence — you need to do research, controlled studies," says Dr. Donald Abrams, the chief of oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and an integrative medicine specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams, a personal friend of the Aldriches who has researched cannabis's medical value extensively — and is a believer in its value — is still a scientific skeptic. "I hear stories all the time — 'I was cured of cancer by this or that' — and most of the time it's frankly bogus."
This skepticism helps explain why, right now, it appears no scientists in the United States are researching the health benefits of this purported miracle oil. Which means that more and more Americans are turning to something that for now is little more than a folk remedy — in the same scientific category as snake oil — and, so they claim, finding a faster, less toxic cure to near-incurable diseases.
Most maddening to some is the fact that none of this is new. Israeli researcher Raphael Mechoulam first isolated CBD and THC 50 years ago. His research led to the discovery of the human body's endocannabinoid system. Not only does every human being have receptors on cells specifically designed to interact with cannabis molecules, but the body creates some of these same marijuana-like compounds naturally, suggesting they already have a role in the body.
In the United States, a toxicology study of THC was conducted in 1972, shortly after marijuana was made federally illegal; it found that rats exposed to large amounts of THC lived longer and had fewer instances of tumors. (The study was not released to the public until 1997, when it was discovered by AIDS activists.) Spanish researcher Manuel Guzman's findings in 2000 were similar: Tumors exposed to compounds in marijuana experienced "negative cell growth" — the cancers shrunk and died, with no adverse side effects to the patient.
But future studies along these lines are threatened for a couple of reasons.
One is the money. Federal funding for medical research has dropped, another victim of an insecure economy. The National Institutes of Health spent $91 million for all medical research in 2012, down from $131 million in 2007. "Right now," Abrams says, "it's hard enough to get a grant to study anything from the NIH."
Funding for marijuana research is even scarcer. Two California research centers — the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California at San Diego, and UCSF, where much ground has been broken in the efficacy of cannabinoids — have been hit with funding troubles. The San Diego institution was founded with a state budget surplus that is long gone, a spokeswoman says. And scientists in San Francisco were close to getting a grant for a study examining inhaled cannabis' effects on sickle cell disease when sequestration eliminated the necessary funding.
Grants to study marijuana can come from places other than the government, and studies into the drug's efficacy in some situations are ongoing, but there appears to be no work of note that would put an FDA-approved oil in the hands of cancer-sufferers.
Marijuana researchers have an extra layer of difficulty, notes UCSF's Abrams, who has had to turn away others who, like Aldrich, have asked him to study various concoctions of oil. "I can't," he explains. "It's not legal." To study cannabis in a clinical setting, while not running afoul of federal law, researchers must acquire the material from one place: a farm at the University of Mississippi run by the National Institute of Drug Abuse. A researcher at the University of Massachusetts has famously tried for years to get Drug Enforcement Administration approval to grow his own crop, but has always been denied. The message is clear: Marijuana research must show the plant is dangerous, not helpful.
However, a doctor at Ole Miss is creating a version of cannabis oil — and is willing to make it available for researchers to study, says Abrams, who has been promised a sample. The problem is, even with DEA-approved oil in hand, researchers still need both funding and the patients willing to be government guinea pigs — neither of which appear to be in the offing.
The medical community also is slow to catch up. Marijuana is not in medical school textbooks, says Dr. Mark Ware, a Montreal-based researcher and professor at the McGill University medical school. "It'd be naive to say there's no stigma [in medicine around marijuana]. ... If marijuana is mentioned at all [in school], it's as a drug of abuse," he says, adding that "patient-based" stories of marijuana curing ailments is helping to drive what research and conversation there is.
Abrams is fond of saying that if marijuana were discovered in the Amazon today, it'd be front-page news worldwide, a miracle drug. Michael Aldrich puts it another way. "Because it's cannabis, because it's something you can grow in your backyard, it's being silenced," he says, adding that if his wife had had the misfortune to fall ill in a state that didn't allow medical marijuana, or had a doctor or nurse that opposed her taking the oil on the side, things would have been very different. "If we were in South Dakota," he says, naming the Union's most cannabis-unfriendly state, "she'd be dead right now."
It's easy to see how one could be converted, but it's safe to say that not everyone agrees the plant is the missing key to health and wellness. "Anyone who doesn't embrace this as God's miracle plant is immediately cast off as a Reefer Madness-style propagandist," sighs Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida and co-founder with former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of the anti-marijuana legalization campaign Project SAM.
Sabet visited San Francisco earlier this month for a debate at the Commonwealth Club with Clint Werner, author of Marijuana: Gateway to Health (who also is Abrams' husband). It wasn't pretty. The Bay Area medical-marijuana echo chamber was more than a bit hostile to Sabet's message that marijuana should never be legalized; the "debate" quickly turned into an "I'm right-you're wrong" back and forth between Werner and Sabet (who chastised Abrams, in the audience, for catcalling). Aldrich, who approached Sabet afterward, launched a few four-letter words his way after he "pooh-poohed" her story, she says.
But even Sabet agrees that the science is sorely lacking. "We should expand research, greatly," he says, calling for the government to "go through the same process that every other medicine went through, including opium. ... We need to advocate for a nonsmoked version of marijuana to be available in a safe way, not in a strip mall next to the tattoo parlor, sold by a 25-year-old with no medical experience."
His perspective is in line with that of the medical community at large, which couches its interest in the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabis with a few caveats: never smoked, and not viable as a drug until it goes through the FDA process. Acceptance is growing: In October, UCSF hosted a conference on cannabis in medical practice, which drew medical professionals from around North America.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of ongoing research into a marijuana-based spray called Sativex, available for years in the Europe and Canada, and currently in clinical trials in the United States. Multiple studies examining Sativex are recruiting patients or have posted results, according to ClinicalTrials.gov, an index of National Institutes of Health studies. Most are concerned with the spray's ability to relieve pain in cancer patients; none appear to be pursuing the potential of cannabinoids to shrink tumors. In other words, what studies are out there are going after the symptoms, not the disease.
This may seem outrageous to cancer-sufferers, those who have seen loved ones die from the disease, or — perhaps worse — those who have used radiation to beat cancer, only to succumb to organ failure later. But science does not move at the speed of Twitter.
"These things take time," says UCSF's Abrams — who pegs the time required for a scientifically sufficient double-blind study at five to 10 years, minimum — and an untold amount of money. A study would need to ascertain if there's any sort of pharmokinetic effect, a reaction between the cannabis oil and the particular cancer drugs in a patient's system, to determine if the oil affects the toxicity of the chemo drugs in the body.
"Then, if you find it's safe, you need to understand the drugs we use for lung cancer are different than the ones we use for brain cancer," Abrams continues. "So does that mean you have to test [the oil] against every chemotherapy agent? That would take a long time and be very expensive." And cancer patients have been unwilling to sign on to such studies involving the oil, he says. Why? Some may be afraid to discuss a renegade rogue treatment with their doctors. Others may just need more data. If so, they're at least a decade away — too long for someone with months to live.
Whether or not science embraces cannabis oil doesn't matter much to Aldrich. She believes that it's what kept her alive — and the good news is spreading. About a month ago she and her husband were out to dinner. "I was telling the waiter, and he knew all about cannabis oil," she says. "If a waiter at Red Lobster knows about it, it's really breaking through. It's like a cab driver giving you tips about the stock market."