Diabetes is running rampant in our nation and New Mexico has a particular problem with the disease. It’s not recognized as one of the qualifying conditions for enrollment in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, but can cannabis help ease some of its symptoms?

Sugar has become the lifeblood of the U.S. Examine the nutritional data on the backs of all your favorite grocery store products and you might be shocked at just how much sugar is in everything we eat. This has led to a largely unacknowledged diabetes epidemic in our country. According to the CDC, around 10 percent of the population suffers from the disease.

Here in New Mexico, over 200,000 people—about 12.3 percent of the population—have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. The group believes an additional 53,000 more have the disease but are unaware of it.

What Is Diabetes?

The state does not recognize diabetes as a qualifying condition for entry into the Medical Cannabis Program, but there is some evidence that the drug can be used to treat some of the worst symptoms associated with the disease.

Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects the way a body processes sugars. Our bodies turn sugar into energy by producing insulin in the pancreas. The insulin allows the sugar to enter into the body’s cells and convert into energy.

Those suffering from diabetes are unable to produce enough insulin or their cells no longer respond to it. When a body is unable to process the sugar it’s consuming, the sugar is dumped into the bloodstream, leading to major health problems. The disease cannot be cured, but its symptoms can be managed.

There are three main types of diabetes: Type 1 is genetic and is often diagnosed in children. Those with Type 1 are unable to produce enough insulin to successfully turn sugar into energy. This type requires daily insulin shots to maintain a healthy blood glucose level. According to the CDC, this type makes up 5 to 10 percent of all diabetes cases in the U.S.

Type 2 diabetes makes up over 90 percent of the cases. It’s usually found in adults, although childhood Type 2 is on a marked rise in recent years. This type of diabetes occurs when cells stop responding to insulin. It’s unknown what causes this but it’s been linked to inactive lifestyles and high sugar consumption.

The third type is called gestational diabetes and is a temporary condition that afflicts a small number of pregnant women.

Pot and Diabetes

While there is yet to be any research supporting the idea that cannabis can treat diabetes, it’s known to help mitigate many of the symptoms associated with the disease in other contexts. The drug has been shown to reduce inflammation in a number of instances and, as with many chronic illnesses, diabetes expresses itself through a series of inflammatory responses. Cannabis is also believed to improve circulation, lower blood pressure over time and possibly regulate blood sugar levels—all of which are complications faced by diabetes patients.

Perhaps most importantly, there is some evidence that cannabis can be used to relieve pain associated with neuropathy, a disorder resulting from damage to the nerves that can be incredibly painful.

A 2018 paper published in the journal Current Pain and Headache Reports examined data from a number of randomized controlled trials and found that low doses of cannabis vapor and edibles were associated with low-risk neuropathic pain relief.

Cannabis can also serve as a preventative drug. According to a 2013 study published in The American Journal of Medicine, participants who were current cannabis users had 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels and 17 percent lower measures of insulin resistance than non-users following an overnight fast. Regular cannabis users were also more likely to have a smaller waistline than those who had never used the drug. The study included data from 4,657 adult participants taken from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2005 to 2010.

Diabetic-Friendly Dessert

But one serious issue facing those who are suffering from diabetes and looking to cannabis as a treatment for symptoms is the lack of sugar-free cannabis options.

Jon Simms is an Albuquerque resident who is curious about using marijuana to treat himself after recently being diagnosed with diabetes. Unfortunately, he’s unable to vape or smoke the drug due to medical concerns. “I’m sitting in the hospital thinking, ‘This sucks. The world is about to legalize, I got friends opening dispensaries and now I can’t even indulge in my favorite past-time.’”

Simms began looking into other options for dosing but was discouraged by the results. “I realized that 90 percent of edibles are candy-based—nothing but sugar. I asked myself if there was diabetic-friendly options and began to look online. And yes there are, but they are few and far between.” Even savory cannabis edibles can have high sugar content or be loaded with carbohydrates (another problematic foodstuff for those suffering from diabetes since it is broken down into sugar by the body).

Considering the high rate of diabetes in New Mexico, it appears that this lack of sugar-free options might be a serious blind spot for local manufacturers. “You would think it would be a money-making venture to advertise the sale of diabetic- and keto-friendly weed options. It’s a no-brainer,” said Simms.

But a cursory search of Albuquerque’s medical cannabis dispensaries only turned up a small handful of sugar-free chocolates, candy and crackers (which contain carbohydrates). Surprisingly, even dispensaries offering small-batch, hand-made edibles appear to offer few—if any—sugar-free options.

For cannabis users suffering from diabetes, that means they’ll have to turn to tinctures or learn to make their own cannabis concoctions at home.