Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration warned four companies to stop advertising their marijuana-based products as cancer cures or treatments. The firms—Stanley Brothers Social Enterprises, Green Roads of Florida, Natural Alchemist, and That's Natural—market a variety of dietary supplements, including oil drops, teas, and creams that allegedly contain cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is derived from marijuana, but the FDA hasn't approved it for any use, and there's no established benefit for cancer patients; certainly not preventing tumor growth, as some of the products claim.
The FDA is taking a hard line against marketing CBD as a cancer cure. "Substances that contain components of marijuana will be treated like any other products that make unproven claims to shrink cancer tumors. We don't let companies market products that deliberately prey on sick people with baseless claims that their substance can shrink or cure cancer and we're not going to look the other way on enforcing these principles when it comes to marijuana-containing products," FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, himself a cancer survivor, said in a statement.
A quarter of cancer patients have used medical marijuana, according to a recent survey, primarily to help alleviate pain and nausea, to stimulate appetite, and to relieve anxiety. Similarly, according to the National Cancer Institute, physicians who recommend medical marijuana do so "predominantly for symptom management," rather than as a cancer cure. That is, medical weed may improve quality of life for cancer patients, but the evidence doesn't suggest it can actually help treat or reverse their illness.
CBD is different from medical marijuana. It's extracted from pot plants and it contains just a fraction of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that gets you high. It's shown some promise as an epilepsy treatment in children with a rare condition called Dravet syndrome.
But that emerging potential is far different from the claims made by the manufacturers the FDA contacted. One company's website declared that "almost all studies recognize CBD's potential in preventing both cancer spread and growth" and that it could "inhibit cell division and growth in certain types of cancer, not allowing the tumor to grow." It went on to list other ailments CBD could treat, including asthma, Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, autism, and bipolar disorder.
The marketing wasn't always so blatantly misleading. The products often featured anonymous testimonials, like movie-review blurbs claiming miracle cures. The website for Stanley Brothers' CW Hemp announced: "A patient of mine uses this for cancer and it gives lots better relief than prescription drugs!''
Obviously, none of those claims had been evaluated by the FDA; there was no study of efficacy, dosage, or potential side effects. In short, the products were being marketed as drugs—but without any of the scientific backing such marketing requires.
In demanding the companies change their pitches, the agency pointed out the real dangers of peddling bogus cures. "There are a growing number of effective therapies for many cancers," Gottlieb said in the statement. "When people are allowed to illegally market agents that deliver no established benefit they may steer patients away from products that have proven, anti-tumor effects that could extend lives."
A spokesperson for Stanley Brothers, which owns the CW Hemp brand (whose website featured the testimonial comparing CBD to prescription drugs), said in an emailed statement:
At CW Hemp, we take regulatory compliance very seriously. Our customers love to share their very personal stories about how our products helped improve their lives or those of their loved ones. They do so because they believe that building awareness and sharing their own experiences might help others. We will work with the FDA to ensure that we better monitor how we share third-party testimonials on the CW Hemp website and social media channels.
That's Natural marketed its CBD products with a claim that they contain an ingredient that "makes cancer cells commit suicide." The company's chief executive, Tisha Casida, said she'd comply with the FDA's request, but posted a statement online saying, "Anything that comes naturally from a plant should never be able to be taken away from the people. People have a right to grow and consume plant-based medicines without the approval of any government agency."
A spokesperson for Natural Alchemist declined to comment on the record and Green Roads of Florida did not be respond to requests for comment.
The businesses have 15 business days from receipt of the warning letters to show the FDA that they've corrected the violations or explain why they need more time to do so.
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