Medical Marijuana 101

Please note: This article was published in 2017.  While the relevant research about the potential benefits of medical marijuana use during cancer treatment has not changed, since 2017 several more states in the US, including Virginia, have legalized medical marijuana access. 

Interest in marijuana as a treatment option for many medical conditions, including cancer,  is growing across the country. During the 2017 Virginia General Assembly session, VBCF reviewed the existing research on medical marijuana and decided to support medical marijuana legislation allowing its use for cancer patients. Research shows that marijuana can be beneficial in combating the side-effects of cancer treatment, including nausea, appetite loss, and pain. VBCF believes breast cancer patients should have access to all potentially useful tools during their treatment journey, including medical marijuana. Therefore, VBCF supports expanding Virginia’s current law–which allows one form of marijuana, cannabidiol, to be used treating epilepsy only–to other diseases, including cancer.

 Potential Health Benefits of Marijuana

Marijuana, classified as a Schedule 1 substance, is illegal at the federal level. Therefore, comprehensive medical research has been limited. The two most studied chemical components of marijuana are delta-9-THC and cannabidiol (CBD).  These active chemicals are referred to as cannabinoids.  THC is the primary active cannabinoid that produces the “high” often associated with marijuana, while CBD does not.  Cannabinoids can be taken orally, inhaled, or sprayed under the tongue.

Research studies have shown that marijuana can help counteract the side effects of cancer and cancer treatment (chemotherapy and radiation):

  • THC can relieve pain and nausea, help increase appetite, reduce inflammation, and can act as an antioxidant. (1)
  • CBD can reduce nausea and stimulate appetite, decrease pain, treat seizures and reduce anxiety. (1)

VBCF hears often from breast cancer patients (and their loved ones) that they would be open to using marijuana to counteract the side effects of treatment and drug regimens.

“My mother had a very hard time eating during her treatment for breast cancer between the nausea and the awful taste in her mouth. She was losing a lot of weight and we had tried everything we could think of.  When the conversation would  lean towards trying marijuana to try to increase her appetite, she would refuse. My mom being the person she was, would not try it because it is illegal in Virginia and she was afraid of going to jail.  My parents are divorced but were both battling cancer at the same time, and my father offered to buy it for her, ‘They can’t put us both in jail, they can’t afford our treatments’.  But no matter what, she refused.  No, marijuana was not going to save my mother’s life, but it would have helped the quality of life for the time she had.  And when your cancer is terminal, that’s all you really want.”   


VBCF volunteer advocate

“During my treatment, sometimes the medicines my doctors prescribed had unwanted side effects like digestive problems which really stinks when you are already dealing with so much. I also lost my appetite as a result of the chemo. I would have welcomed the choice of an alternative remedy like marijuana if it was legal. Having another option to try and something more natural would have been great.”


VBCF volunteer advocate

Support for Medical Marijuana

Many states across the country passed laws to allow patients to utilize legal medical marijuana. Twenty-nine (29) states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana to treat certain diseases and medical conditions. An additional 18 states have approved low-THC, high CBD (the non-psychoactive component of marijuana, cannibidiol, often in oil form) for use for certain disease states. It is estimated that 300 million Americans or 85% of the country’s population now live in states with medical marijuana laws (2). 

In Virginia, public support for medical marijuana is very strong. An April 2017 Quinnipiac poll showed an overwhelming 92.6% of Virginia voters support allowing adults to use marijuana for medical use if a doctor prescribes it (4).  Recently, both of Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial candidates expressed their support for expanded use of medical marijuana in the commonwealth.(5) 

Medical Marijuana in Virginia

Currently, in Virginia, medical marijuana (cannabidiol or THC-A oil, both non-psychoactive) can be legally prescribed only for use in treating intractable epilepsy.  During the 2017 General Assembly, legislative efforts to expand use to other diseases such as cancer, glaucoma, HIV/Aids, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis failed.  Instead, legislators asked Virginia’s Joint Commission on Health Care to conduct a year-long study of the long-term effects of marijuana use on individuals and populations. (This report was released in October 2017 and helped pave the way for the 2018 legislative action to establish a medical cannabis program in Virginia (6)

VBCF believes Virginians with breast cancer should have access to medical marijuana as prescribed by their healthcare providers. VBCF staff and advocates met with state legislators this summer to discuss prospects for this issue in the 2018 General Assembly session. VBCF is also building a coalition of other patient advocates and medical interest groups who support increased access to medical marijuana in the commonwealth.


(1)NIH National Cancer Institute; ACS sources:

American Cancer Society, “Marijuana and Cancer”, American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute, “Cannabis and Cannabinoids (PDQ®)–Patient Version,“ National Cancer Institute

(2) Americans for Safe Access, “Medical Marijuana Access in the United States,”  Americans for Safe Access  

(3) Briantica Pro-Con, “Legal Medical Marijuana States and DC,” Britanica Pro-Con.

(4)  Calello, Monique, “Support in Virginia is growing for medical marijuana,” The News Leader 

(5) Schneider, Gregory S., “Gillespie touts criminal justice reform beyond what GOP legislature has embraced,” The Washington Post.

 (6)Mitchell, Andrew, “Medical Use and Health Effects of Cannabis, Joint Commission on Health Care.

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