First it was a cough. Then it was bronchitis. Then it was time to say goodbye to Michelle Aldrich.
The year 2011 was supposed to be a good one for the 66-year-old. That June, she and her husband, Michael, were feted with a lifetime achievement award by High Times magazine for their four decades of work on marijuana legalization. Yet something was off. She was smoking a lot, maybe more than ever.
And she couldn't get high.
In the fall of that year — a bad time for the local marijuana movement, as the federal Justice Department began shutting down hundreds of California medical cannabis dispensaries — Aldrich went in to see a series of doctors for what she thought was a flu that just refused to go away.
After six weeks of progressively worse diagnoses — flu became bronchitis, which became pneumonia — a CT scan revealed the cause behind the "heat" she felt in the middle of her chest. A tumor, "poorly-differentiated non-small cell adenocarcinoma." In other words, stage 3 lung cancer.
Lung cancer is a killer, with nearly 70 percent of new cases resulting in deaths, according to statistics published by the National Cancer Institute. "I thought I was going to die," Aldrich says from her Marina District apartment. But she didn't. And now, she is busy telling anyone who will listen that, along with diet and chemotherapy, a concoction of highly concentrated cannabis oil eliminated her cancer in less than four months.
She was diagnosed in January 2012; by April, CT scans revealed that the tumor had shrunk by 50 percent. Her surgeon at California Pacific Medical Center removed what was left of the tumor that May. (CPMC did not return calls by press time.) She isn't "officially" cured yet — a cancer patient needs five years of cancer-free living to beat the disease — but her most-recent scan, on March 27, was all clear. Her doctors — one of whom noted the effect of "homeopathic treatments, including hemp oil" to reprogram the cancer cells to kill themselves — "are floored," she says. "They've never seen anything like it."
Constance Finley has. She says that, over the last year, a "world-class oncologist" — who for now wants to remain nameless, perhaps to preserve his practice — has referred 26 people to her, a skilled East Bay marijuana grower who knows how to distill a pound of high-grade bud to an ounce of oil.
The oil itself is simple. Anyone with a bucket, a pile of pot, and a solvent can make it. First devised by Canadian cannabis pioneer Rick Simpson — from which it derives one of its names, Simpson oil — the oil is merely cannabis distilled to its essential active cannabinoids, with as much of the plant material as possible removed using the solvent. Aldrich's providers of what they call "milagro oil" at Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz use Everclear; Finley uses 99 isopropryl alcohol.
The oil also is extremely potent. Finley says her concoction is 72 percent tetrahydracannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that gets you stoned, and which in lab studies has shrunk tumors in rats; and 11 percent cannabidiol, or CBD, the cannabinoid in marijuana that studies suggest doesn't get you high but has anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties.
It may not be for everyone: Patients start with a dose as small as a grain of rice before ramping up to a full gram per day, a hit that can leave some people woozy and dizzy — uncomfortably high. And it's expensive. A pound of good bud runs $2,500 to $3,000 in the Bay Area, and Finley delivers to anywhere in California. Aldrich says a three-month regimen cost her $1,200 a month; Finley charges $5,500 for a two-month cycle.
But it might be money well-spent. All 26 of Finley's referrals had stage 4 cancers — brain tumors, colon cancers, lung cancers — which means the malignant growths had metastasized to other organs. Most had prognoses of a few months to live, some had less than six weeks. All complemented modern Western medicine treatments such as chemotherapy with the concentrated oil — and all but one have survived, she says. A patient's prognosis can very widely depending on the type of cancer, but the disease is a reliable killer at stage 4, meaning Finley's patients' 96 percent survival rate is unheard-of.
"I'm not a stoner," she says now, almost defensively, noting that classmates at Oakland-based cannabis grow college Oaksterdam University, where she honed her cultivator skills, at times mistook her for an undercover cop. "It was against my own prejudice that this could really be true."
These survival stories are becoming more common. One of the most high-profile was the case of Montana toddler Cash Hyde, diagnosed with a brain tumor at 20 months, whose family credits cannabis oil for keeping the tumor at bay and keeping him alive — until a change in Montana state law cut off his access to oil for a few months. The tumor returned and he died in November, at age four.
These stories are remarkable, but for now they're also just stories — which means they're all but worthless to the medical community, which needs hard data. "Anecdotes are not evidence — you need to do research, controlled studies," says Dr. Donald Abrams, the chief of oncology at San Francisco General Hospital and an integrative medicine specialist at the University of California at San Francisco. Abrams, a personal friend of the Aldriches who has researched cannabis's medical value extensively — and is a believer in its value — is still a scientific skeptic. "I hear stories all the time — 'I was cured of cancer by this or that' — and most of the time it's frankly bogus."
This skepticism helps explain why, right now, it appears no scientists in the United States are researching the health benefits of this purported miracle oil. Which means that more and more Americans are turning to something that for now is little more than a folk remedy — in the same scientific category as snake oil — and, so they claim, finding a faster, less toxic cure to near-incurable diseases.