Missing Research on Diabetes and Cannabis

Emily Riopelle

What if Cannabis, in addition to all of its other medicinal properties, had the capacity to treat or even prevent diabetes? For the 22.3 million Americans living with diabetes, this would be a godsend. But the research on the topic is minimal. Why? Perhaps because diabetics are big money makers for the insurance and pharmaceutical companies — $306 billion last year alone. This number, gleaned from a 2012 study done by the American Diabetes Association (ADA), is up from the year before and will continue to rise unless alternative treatments crop up.

There are two types of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2. While Type 2 is more common, both are defined by the body’s inability to produce or absorb insulin, a hormone that allows glucose to be absorbed and processed by cells. Low insulin results in a buildup of glucose in the blood, and insulin injections or pills are required to control blood glucose levels. Diabetics are forced to pay thousands of dollars for meters, testing strips, batteries, lancets, needles, insulin pens, insulin vials, insulin pumps and medications to stabilize their blood glucose every day. According to the previously mentioned ADA study, the number of Americans diagnosed with diabetes increased from 12.1 million in 2002 to 22.4 million in 2012. Along with the rising diagnoses comes increased money spent per patient. But what about diabetics who can’t afford these ridiculous costs? What about the uninsured? How are diabetics, who rely on insulin to survive, supposed to cope if they can’t afford that insulin?

The problem can seem large and complicated, and many studies have been done on the cost-effectiveness of prevention programs. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented — and sometimes treated — by mere lifestyle changes such as healthier eating. However, little is known about the causes of Type 1 diabetes, and prevention is elusive to say the least. The next best option for those many diabetics with little or no health insurance is cheaper and hopefully better treatment. Both types of diabetics are less likely to have diabetic complications if they are able to better manage their blood glucose levels. The question is whether Cannabis could have any role in managing blood glucose and/or treating the complications that can result from mismanagement.

Only one major study has been done on this topic. Conducted in 2007 and funded by the American Diabetes Association, this study involved injecting non-obese, diabetes-prone mice with doses of cannabidiol (CBD). These were mice that showed early signs of Type 1 diabetes. The results of the study were astounding. While 100 percent of the untreated mice developed diabetes, only 32 percent of the CBD-treated mice developed the disease. The study concludes: “Our data strengthens our previous assumption that CBD, known to be safe in man, can possibly be used as a therapeutic agent for treatment of type 1 diabetes.” The study attributes this result to the cannabinoid’s anti-inflammatory characteristics. These characteristics also make Cannabis a good choice for treating the complications that often occur with diabetes, especially type 2, such as neuropathy and retinopathy.

What’s missing is any research indicating whether CBD or any other cannabinoid could be effective in directly managing glucose levels. The topic is hotly debated in Cannabis and diabetes forums alike. Some patients claim their blood sugar drops from Cannabis while others say they only get the munchies. Different effects can depend on the strain and its individual cannabinoid ratios. However, people on these forums usually forget to mention what strain they’re using. For example, as this video from Santa Cruz labs details, low doses of THCV in your bud can cause weight loss and decreased body fat, the exact opposite of the typical THC effects.  The large amount of anecdotal evidence on this topic indicates a need for some formal research.

In the meantime, more and more growers are realizing the medicinal benefits of CBD. Becacuse CBD tends to counteract the effects of THC, strains high in CBD lack the psychoactive effects that make medical Cannabis controversial. Groups such as Project CBD and CBD Crew educate the public about the benefits of CBD and work on developing CBD-rich strains. Both sites list diabetes as one of the many conditions CBD may be helpful in treating. However, CBD levels are based solely on genetics rather than growing conditions, and therefore can be difficult to breed. The CBD Crew, based out of the UK, is developing 100 percent CBD-rich seeds for patients. For now, the group sells seeds that have equal levels of CBD and THC, around 5 percent each. CBD levels of 4 percent or above are considered high. Project CBD lists 25 strains that are considered high in CBD, including Sour Tsunami, Harlequin, Cannatonic and Bubblegum Kush. The full list can be seen here. Growers, breeders and medibles chefs aware of this promising treatment option can begin catering to the needs of diabetes patients by growing these strains. Individual patients could also help determine whether CBD is helpful in lowering blood sugar, through monitoring their glucoselevels, until there is more research.

Although at the moment it may be next to impossible to find a doctor who will profess that Cannabis will decrease your blood sugar, the Mayo Clinic’s marijuana tab lists “may lower blood sugar” as one of its side effects. And an article on the DLife website by nurse Theresa Garnero, after an extensive list of the diabetic benefits of CBD, warns, “Watch for low glucose values and plan accordingly. Some patients report drops in glucose up to 40 mg/dl.” This is a huge drop for diabetics; depending on the time frame and the level of pancreas function, blood glucose typically doesn’t drop more than 20 points or so without the help of insulin injections. Some speculate that if Cannabis does reduce blood glucose levels, it may be merely attributed to the reduction in catecholamines and stress hormones caused by Cannabis consumption. One company that suggests this is the makers of Idrasil, a California-based company that has developed a pure, consistent-dosage Cannabis pill. The pill is meant for any Cannabis patient who doesn’t wish to smoke or indulge in medibles, not solely diabetics. Their hope is to do for Cannabis “what morphine did for opium.”

The lack of research on the topic of diabetes and Cannabis can probably be attributed to the lack of money pharmaceutical companies think they can make off of a plant, as a plant can’t be patented. However, the UK company GW Pharmaceuticals, which we mentioned in our April “Top Ten Cannabis Stocks” article, has been working for the past couple of years to get a Cannabis-based pill into foreign markets. According to the company site, their medication, Sativex — used to treat multiple sclerosis — is now sold in 21 countries and has recently been moved to the unrestricted, Schedule IV classification in the UK. Now, the company is working on developing an anti-diabetic pill for type 2 diabetes based on a novel cannabinoid, and they recently signed a licensing agreement with the U.S. division of the Tokyo-based pharmaceutical company Otsuka. GW seems to be the most promising candidate on the horizon when it comes to a legal Cannabis-based diabetes treatment, but whether the medication would be more cost-effective is yet to be seen. Either way, more research on this topic could provide further evidence of the medicinal qualities of Cannabis that could be helpful for supporting its legalization.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.