If you google ‘marijuana and epilepsy’ or ‘cannabis and epilepsy’ you’ll get a pretty wide spread of opinions on the question of whether or not marijuana is actually effective at treating the symptoms of epilepsy.

So what – and who – should you believe?

We’re not going to weigh in with an opinion here, but we are going to give you a little taste of popular opinion. At the time of writing this is a particularly hot topic in America. And, as it’s probably fair to say that whatever happens in America will, sooner or later, influence what happens here, let’s take a look at what people are saying…

Give people the choice

One of the loudest voices in favour of giving people with epilepsy the right to choose to access medical marijuana is the American Epilepsy Foundation. They’re also calling for an end to restrictions limiting research into the effectiveness of marijuana to treat the symptoms of epilepsy.

For the Epilepsy Foundation, this is fundamentally about personal choice. They accept that using marijuana to treat epilepsy comes with risks. (And we simply don’t know enough about precisely what those risks are, hence their push for continued research.) But they argue that if, in the opinion of a person’s healthcare professional, the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks, then it should be up to each individual or their family to make that choice.

It’s not an easy decision. But the Epilepsy Foundation suggests that people living with uncontrolled seizures don’t have the luxury of time. They can’t wait for legislation to turn in their favour. If the legal option is going to be available, then it needs to be available now. As they say, every seizure is a lost opportunity to live, learn and grow.

Can cannabis derivatives treat seizures?

The US is slowly beginning to allow the use of chemicals derived from cannabis plants to treat childhood epilepsies.

Colorado has become a haven for people looking for a cure for epilepsy for their children. The state has legalised the use of cannabis for recreational use and is undertaking a $7 million research programme to try and definitively establish the likely short and long-term impacts of using cannabis to treat epilepsy in children.

A new medicine called Epidolex has also been trialled in the States, and now in the UK. Early indications are that it may be effective at reducing the severity and frequency of seizures in children with uncontrolled epilepsy.

What about the evidence?

Until the research from studies like the Epidolex trials goes public, a lot of the ‘evidence’ remains anecdotal. People who have used cannabis derivatives or marijuana to treat epilepsy have reported improvements, including reduced instances of seizures. But there isn’t a lot of written evidence to back this up. Worse, some people report a worsening of symptoms after using marijuana.

It’s also been suggested that anti-epileptic effects may be restricted to certain seizure types.

For some of the latest research for a cannabis derived formulation for adults with epilepsy we can turn to research begun in the UK in 2013. A pre-clinical trial at the University of Reading tested a range of cannabinoids – the chemical compounds it contains – to see which, if any, exert the crucial anticonvulsant effects.

In particular, they identified a compound called GWP42006 which, the research claims helps to control seizures. The good news (or bad news, depending on your point of view) is that it won’t make you high in the process!

Crucially, the research also suggests GWP42006 is easier to tolerate than other anti-epilepsy drugs.

Full trials of GWP42006 are now underway. But a note of caution… The research has been funded by the drug company GW Pharmaceuticals. As with any research funded by a drugs company, it’s important to reserve judgement until a full, objective assessment of the results has been carried out. If there are any interesting developments, we’ll let you know…

What about the downsides?

It’s important to bear in mind that, at best, anticonvulsants (like marijuana) will only help in about 60% of cases.

There may be other downsides to consider too.

While we can’t say for certain what the benefits of using marijuana as a way of treating epilepsy might be, we can refer to plenty of trials investigating the harmful effects of marijuana. Some of the reported symptoms include emotional disorders, diminished mental faculties, a decrease in the production of red blood cells, and even, in rare cases, loss of motor control.

In other words, taking marijuana to help with epilepsy isn’t something you can do lightly.

So where does that leave us?

Marijuana and epilepsy – the objective answer

What’s clear is that we need a lot more objective research and we need to assert the right of healthcare professionals and people living with epilepsy (as well as their families) to make informed choices based on the best available evidence. The more evidence we have, the easier it’ll be for all concerned to assess the likely benefits weighed up against their own situation.

This isn’t the time to wholeheartedly recommend cannabis derivatives or marijuana to aid people with epilepsy; it’s the time to say let’s investigate further…

Let’s put all prejudices aside and see if marijuana use really can help people with epilepsy.