IBD is an umbrella term which encompasses Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and other chronic gastrointestinal diseases which damage the tissues of the digestive tract.
Our guest expert this month was “David,”* a WCM member whose 15-year struggle with ulcerative colitis ended literally the moment that he tried cannabis.
Since before the turn of this century, David had suffered from ulcerative colitis and its parade of negative side effects: inflamed ulcers in his colon caused chronic visceral pain, bleeding, and a related litany of social and interpersonal challenges.
David tried many of the standard treatments for IBD, particularly steroid medicines that left him bloated and his moods swinging wildly. Despite these side effects, he found that pharmaceutical interventions provided him with brief, blessedly symptom-free interludes, but never for more than a few months.
After more than a decade trying to manage his UC via pharmaceuticals, over the counter remedies, and dietary changes, David was at a holiday party in 2014 when he overheard a similarly-afflicted friend talking about using medical cannabis to wean off of Humira (an anti-inflammatory drug originally approved to treat rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, but now commonly used to treat inflammation in IBD patients). As he left the gathering, David pondered his friend’s experience.
He knew his regimen of pharmaceuticals was providing only intermittent, temporary relief. And he knew that his now-adult children sometimes left cannabis in the basement after their visits to him. Long story short: on December 28, 2014, David tried cannabis for the first time in many, many years.
As his fingers recalled the long-disused motions of rolling himself a joint, he felt a cramping twinge in his stomach—not a twinge of guilt for ransacking his grown kids’ stash, but one of those deep visceral twinges that starts a countdown clock in an IBD patient’s head, signaling them to start looking for the nearest bathroom.
Instead, David finished his roll, then took a quick puff or two.
Within minutes, the twinge in his gut dwindled, dissipated, then disappeared entirely.
More than 18 months later, it has not returned. Nor have any of his other symptoms.
David did not realize it in the moment, but after a decade and a half, his ulcerative colitis apparently went into full remission on December 28, 2014.
Shortly after realizing that cannabis gave him real relief, David talked to his primary care doctor and his GI specialist about becoming certified to use medical cannabis in Maine. One doctor was opposed to the idea and would not certify; the other thought it would be a good avenue to pursue, but could not certify. David ended up consulting with a cannabis specialist doctor, and ever since has controlled his UC with a mix of therapeutic cannabis capsules, edibles, and vaporizing.
In preparing for our webinar, I was unprepared for the relative dearth of scientific research into the capacity of plant-based cannabinoids to help control IBD. One of the more promising studies occurred in 2013, and involved 21 human subjects with Crohn’s disease which had not responded to traditional treatments. These were divided into a group of 11 who received whole-plant cannabis joints, and 10 who received “placebo containing cannabis flowers from which the THC had been extracted.”
10 of the 11 participants in the cannabis group achieved a clinically significant decrease in symptoms, while 5 of the 11 achieved “complete remission” of symptoms, as did David. Three of them were also weaned off of steroids after this short-course (8-week) study. Further, “(s)ubjects receiving cannabis reported improved appetite and sleep, with no significant side effects.”
The dearth of research was not the only surprise. Another came when I asked David if his most recent colonoscopy showed that his colon had healed of the ulcers—a result that one might expect, given the lasting, 100% remission of even his worst symptoms.
But despite living with UC for so long, David does not qualify for an insurance-covered colonoscopy in the near future. He would have to pay out-of-pocket for the procedure, a cost he cannot presently afford.
So do we have current medical “proof” that his UC is in remission; that his lower GI tract is no longer inflamed by ulcerative sores? No, we don’t. And based on David’s current insurance situation, we won’t have that evidence for several years.
And that leads me to perhaps the strangest words I have ever written for publication: I very much want to see David’s current colonoscopy results.
David is curious too. But he also knows he is living the evidence of the healing properties of cannabis, with every symptom-free day in his post-December 28, 2014 life.
*Like many of our members, David was not comfortable sharing his real name. Despite the fact that medical cannabis appears to have put his ulcerative colitis into remission; despite the support of his family and his close friends; despite the fact that he no longer relies on pharmaceuticals as he once did, he fears negative repercussions should his workplace discover that he is a medical cannabis patient. WCM is grateful that he shared his personal story with us. We respect his and all patients’ privacy, and we are committed to working toward a day when cannabis use carries no such stigma.