With medical marijuana becoming available in a growing number of states, patients with Crohn’s disease may wonder if they should give it a try. Research has suggested that the potentially therapeutic compounds in the plant could indeed help with symptoms, but experts recommend that patients proceed with caution. “There really isn’t data to tell us that it’s effective for Crohn’s disease,” says Mark Gerich, MD, assistant professor of gastroenterology and clinical director of the Crohn’s & Colitis Center at the University of Colorado in Aurora. Though people who use it often report improvement in pain or easing of diarrhea, there’s no objective evidence that marijuana actually reduces the gut inflammation that’s at the core of the disease. Here is what else you should know about using marijuana for Crohn’s.
The Disease: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatments
Often mischaracterized as an autoimmune disease, Crohn’s disease is in fact an immune deficiency state. Arising from a host of genetic, environmental, and immunological factors, the disease causes a chronic inflammatory disorder that attacks the person’s gastrointestinal tract — anywhere from the mouth to the anus — in order to fight the body’s antigens that otherwise do no harm. Symptoms of the disease range from mild abdominal pain to more severe cases of bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and fevers.
There is no cure for Crohn’s; however, various methods are aimed at limiting flare ups and keeping the disease in remission. Treatments, like disease severity, fall on a spectrum depending on the person. Simple dietary changes suffice for some, while invasive surgery to remove the affected area may be needed for others. Corticosteroids and other medications are also prescribed for less severe cases. The disease affects around 400,000 to 600,000 people in North America, although many people do not get diagnosed until they’ve had the disease for years, simply because no symptoms were present.
The Study And Its Findings
Scientists at Meir Medical Center in Israel wanted to examine the effects of Cannabis sativa on patients with severe Crohn’s disease, relying on the underlying drug’s anti-inflammatory effects in treating other ailments, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
“The marijuana plant Cannabis sativa has been reported to produce beneficial effects for patients with inflammatory bowel diseases, but this has not been investigated in controlled trials,” the researchers wrote. “We performed a prospective trial to determine whether cannabis can induce remission in patients with Crohn’s disease.”
Twenty-one people with severe, intractable Crohn’s comprised the study. Out of those 21, 11 subjects smoked two joints a day for eight weeks. The other 10 made up the placebo group. The results were particularly telling, according to the researchers. In total, five of the 11 subjects smoking marijuana daily achieved total remission of their Crohn’s. They reported greater appetites and sleep patterns. (People with severe cases of Crohn’s sometimes defecate 20 times per day, and may even wake up at night to do so.) Moreover, “a clinical response” was found in 10 of those 11. Only four of the 10 placebo subjects reported any improvements.
These findings, argued the researchers, demonstrate how “THC-rich cannabis produced significant clinical, steroid-free benefits to 11 patients with active Crohn’s disease, compared with placebo, without side effects.”
The researchers were hesitant to call the study a total success, however, saying that the “primary end point of the study (induction of remission) was not achieved,” despite the five of 11 people who reported those effects. Still, they noted that their findings merit further attention. “Further studies, with larger patient groups and a nonsmoking mode of intake, are warranted,” they wrote, pointing to the potentially diminished effects of smoking marijuana, as opposed to extracting the anti-inflammatory drugs directly from the plant.
The Risks of Marijuana Use for Crohn’s
Cannabis use also comes with certain risks. For one, its reduction in symptoms may mask ongoing inflammation, making patients think their disease is in remission when it’s not, according to Dr. Ahmed’s paper published in November 2016 in the journal Gastroenterology & Hepatology. And a study published in March 2014 in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases showed that cannabis use might actually increase the risk of surgery in people with Crohn’s. Marijuana use also entails a risk of dependence, psychosis and — with long-term use — neurocognitive impairment, says Dr. Ahmed. He therefore suggests that it should only be reserved for controlling pain or symptoms in patients who do not respond to other types of treatment.
Obtaining Medical Marijuana to Treat Crohn’s
Despite the risks, medical marijuana is available as a treatment option for patients with Crohn’s in many of the 28 states that have legalized its use for medical purposes. If you’re interested in obtaining cannabis for Crohn’s, the New York State Medical Marijuana Program’s website says to consult your treating physician first. If your doctor is registered with a state medical marijuana program and agrees this is the appropriate treatment, you can get a certificate for it. If your physician isn’t registered, you can get referred to another doctor who is. Once you have the certificate you will have to register with the state’s medical marijuana program to obtain an ID that could then be used to obtain the marijuana from a dispensing facility.