One of the wildest claims that has been made about the medical efficacy of cannabis is that it can help to treat cancer. Recent studies have shown that, indeed, that may be the case. But without any previous indication, what gave activists that idea in the first place?

Rick Simpson

Back in 2003 a man named Rick Simpson changed the way we look at medical marijuana. Simpson is a Canadian who was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, a skin cancer. He was already a medical cannabis patient at the time and had noted a study published in 1975 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that found THC and CBN oral doses were associated with the shrinking of cancerous tumors in mice.

It wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough for Simpson. He immediately took a homemade cannabis oil, applied it to the tumor and covered it with a bandage. According to Simpson, when the bandage was removed days later, the tumor was gone and he was cancer-free.

The story has never been corroborated, but it spread far and wide over the next two decades. Simpson’s proprietary recipe and method for making cannabis oil—which he made available on his website for free—has become one of the most popular ways to manufacture extracts. The simple method produces a dark, viscous substance known as Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) or Phoenix Tears. It can be found in many dispensaries around New Mexico, where it’s sold in needle-less syringes that are marked for easy dose application. It’s generally taken orally and can be used to infuse edibles with THC—but its bitter taste means it doesn’t always mix well with other flavors. Most patients seem to have settled for squeezing out a dose on their tongue and swallowing it like a pill.

Martyr For the Cause

Simpson became known as an avid advocate for using the oil as a cancer treatment, and he was even willing to make sacrifices for his belief—not just by giving away the recipe (and samples) of his oil, but by going as far as getting arrested over it.

His experiment with using RSO to treat his tumor wasn’t his first brush with the oil by far. In 1997 Simpson was working at a Canadian hospital, treating its pipes with a potent aerosol glue for asbestos. During the job, toxic fumes from the glue caused him to fall off a ladder and suffer head trauma.

Simpson developed post-concussion syndrome, causing him to suffer from tinnitus. Simpson claimed that traditional pharmaceuticals weren’t helping and turned to medicinal cannabis. He said a chance viewing of a television special about the subject called “Reefer Madness 2” put the idea in his head.

Simpson began growing his own plants and developed his special method for creating cannabis extract. He began using the extract to treat his head injury and claimed that it healed the tinnitus. The experience prompted him to become an outspoken advocate for the medical use of marijuana.

He also started giving his oil to the sick people in his community for free, a practice he would continue into the next century—and one that would ultimately land him in trouble with the law.

In 2005 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided his home in Nova Scotia. Authorities confiscated his plants and arrested Simpson. He spent four days in jail. According to local reports, the county court judge presiding over the case noted that Simpson truly believed his oil cured cancer and was not producing cannabis to gain profit. The court discovered that Simpson had been providing the oil for free to around 300 people. Simpson was given a fine and sent home.

In 2009 the police raided his home once again. They found more plants, but Simpson was in Amsterdam at the time and stayed there to avoid jail. He moved to Europe in 2013 and decided to stay there indefinitely.

Treating Cancer

Simpson’s claims have been met with cheers from the faithful and sneers from the skeptics.

Even many ardent cannabis advocates are uncomfortable supporting what might be unsubstantiated claims that cannabis can cure cancer. After all, if the opposite proves true, then they would be responsible for sending suffering patients down a useless path in their search for a treatment.

But many supporters claim that their own experiments with the oil have had positive results. The American Cancer Society has even come out in support of the idea, saying, “Scientists reported that THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes. Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce spread of some forms of cancer.”

While it still might be too soon tell if marijuana can actually kill cancer cells, we know for sure that it can help treat a number of symptoms associated with cancer. It can ease nausea and stomach pain resulting from chemotherapy; it can help treat depression and anxiety; and it can improve appetite. These aspects alone make it a priceless medicine for patients going through cancer treatments.