Sickle Cell Anemia – Medical Marijuana Research Overview

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Sickle cell anemia is an inherited blood cell disorder that primarily affects black Americans in the United States. Studies have shown cannabis is effective at lowering the levels of severe pain commonly associated with the disorder and can help maintain proper blood flow to lower the risk of tissue damage.

Overview of Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is an inherited condition that causes red blood cells to become misshapen and sticky, preventing them from effectively carrying oxygen throughout the body. Healthy blood cells are round and flexible, designed to travel through blood vessels with ease. In sickle cell anemia, red blood cells are rigid and shaped like crescent moons. As a result, they will commonly get stuck and build up in smaller blood vessels, potentially limiting or blocking normal blood flow.

When the sickle-shaped blood cells get caught and block blood flow, the result is often sudden and severe pain that’s referred to as “pain crises.” Pain crises often come without warning. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, children with sickle cell anemia are mostly pain free between painful crises. However, adolescents and adults with the disease can suffer from chronic, ongoing pain.

Sickle cell anemia is a lifelong disease. The only potential cure is to undergo a hematopoietic stem cell transplant, which requires a well-matched donor. Therefore, treatment focus typically involves reducing symptoms and prolonging life. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that the life expectancy of a person with sickle cell anemia to be 40 to 60 years.

Findings: Effects of Cannabis on Sickle Cell Anemia

Cannabis has pain-relieving properties that have long been found to be effective and it’s been used to treat pain caused by a variety of ailments and conditions5. When examining cannabis’ pain-relieving capabilities specifically for sickle-cell anemia, scientists found that medical cannabis is effective1.

Treating sickle cell anemia pain is important for reasons beyond the comfort of patients. The pain caused by sickle cell anemia is the result of vascular occlusion, tissue infarction and inflammation. Therefore, treating the painful episodes associated with sickle cell anemia with cannabis is important for minimizing tissue damage and for improving the patient’s overall health. The cannabinoids in cannabis, which have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, may be beneficial in addressing the pain and potential inflammation related to the disease2.

States That Have Approved Medical Marijuana for Sickle Cell Anemia

Currently, just Connecticut, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have specifically approved medical marijuana to treat sickle cell anemia. However, several other states approve marijuana for the treatment of chronic pain, a symptom commonly associated with sickle cell anemia. These states include: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia. The states of Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio and Vermont allow medical marijuana to treat “severe pain.” The states of Arkansas, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and West Virginia have approved cannabis for the treatment of “intractable pain.”

Other states may allow medical marijuana to be used for the treatment of sickle cell anemia with the recommendation of a physician. These states include: Massachusetts (other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician), and Washington (any “terminal or debilitating condition”).

In Washington D.C., any condition can be approved for medical marijuana as long as a DC-licensed physician recommends the treatment.

Recent Studies on Cannabis’ Effect on Sickle Cell Anemia

  • Cannabinoids were effective in lowering both pain and hyperalgesia (abnormally heighted sensitivity to pain) in rats exhibiting the same characteristics of pain observed in sickle cell disease patients.
    Pain-related behaviors and neurochemical alterations in mice expressing sickle hemoglobin: modulation by cannabinoids.


  1. Costantino, C.M., Gupta, A., Yewdall, A.W., Dale, B.M., Devi, L.A., & Chen, B.K. (2012). Cannabinoid Receptor 2-Mediated Attenuation of CXCR4-Tropic HIV Infection in Primary CD4+ T Cells. PLoS ONE, 7(3), e33961. Retrieved from
  2. Klein, T.W. (2005, May). Cannabinoid-based drugs as anti-inflammatory therapeutics. Nature Reviews Immunology, 5, 400-411. Retrieved from
  3. Sickle Cell Anemia. (2014, June 11). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from
  4. Signorelli, A.A., Ribeiro, S.B., Moraes-Souza, H., de Oliveira, L.F., Ribeiro, J.B., da Silva, S.H., de Oliveira, D.F., and Ribeiro, M.F. (2013). Pain measurement as part of primary healthcare of adult patients with sickle cell disease. Revista Brasilileira de Hematologia e Hemoterapia, 35(4), 272-7. Retrieved from
  5. Ware, M.A., Wang, T., Shapiro, S., and Collet, J.P. (2015, September 15). Cannabis for the Management of Pain: Assessment of Safety Study (COMPASS). The Journal of Pain. Retrieved from
  6. What Is Sickle Cell Disease? (2015, June 12). National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Retrieved from
  • September 18, 2015
  • Eve Ripley