The endocannabinoid revelation
By Rick Holmes
April 28, 2014
— The federal government has just approved the first study of the use of marijuana in treating war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, research veterans’ groups have been pushing for years.
— Animal research has linked components in marijuana to an enzyme that inhibits the production of plaque in the brain — the most visible sign of Alzheimer’s. Cannabis may hold the key to slowing, or even reversing, memory loss due to aging.
— Cancer patients can attest to marijuana’s effectiveness in easing the symptoms of the disease and its treatment: pain, nausea, and appetite loss. Now studies in Madrid and San Francisco have found it may also prevent or even shrink cancerous tumors.
— CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta reported last year on the case of Charlotte Fugi, 5 years old, whose severe form of epilepsy – she was suffering up to 300 seizures a week — was largely cured when she was treated with CBD, a compound in marijuana that doesn’t produce a high. The Epilepsy Foundation is now calling for stepped-up research on medical marijuana.
— A study, published in February in the American Journal of Public Health, tracked suicide rates in several states over 17 years. In states that had legalized or decriminalized marijuana, the suicide rate among men ages 20 to 40 declined by 10 percent.
— There is evidence from patient experience that marijuana can make smaller amounts of opiate-based painkillers more effective or even unnecessary. It may also be useful in treating addiction.
Now consider this: All these promising discoveries have been slowed for decades, causing incalculable suffering, because in 1970, politicians launching the “War on Drugs” decided to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug which, by definition, has “no currently accepted medical use.”
No medical use? The items on this list — PTSD, Alzheimer’s, addiction, suicide, cancer, epilepsy — are among the most pressing medical challenges America faces, not to mention most expensive. And there are other areas — diabetes, stroke, Parkinson’s, mental illness — in which cannabis holds promise. It’s not just about glaucoma any more.
Marijuana’s illegality under federal law, with marijuana for research tightly controlled by law enforcement has led to haphazard, improvised discovery process. AIDS and cancer patients had to figure out on their own that smoking pot could ease their pain and restore their appetites, for instance.
But research into how the brain works has opened up a large box of mysteries the drug war had kept locked. In 1988, federally-funded research discovered “cannabinoid” receptors in nerve cells, that work through molecules similar to those in the marijuana plant. This led to the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, which appears to be tied to raft of biological processes, including memory, pain, appetite and mood.
Some of the more interesting research in this field is happening in China, where scientists have tied the pain reduction effects of acupuncture to the endocannabinoid system. For millennia, people have known acupuncture works; only now are we finding out how.
Some of the more promising research targets Cannabidiol — CBD for short. THC is the compound in marijuana that gets you high, but CBD appears to be the cannabinoid most involved in healing. It also takes the edge off the THC high, reducing paranoia, anxiety and short-term memory loss.
Unfortunately, CBD is being “bred out of the gene pool” by marijuana growers pushing for ever-higher THC content, according to Martin A. Lee, an author and journalist who helped create Project CBD (www.projectCBD.org) to spread the word about medical marijuana research.
CBD-rich strains of marijuana, infused into tinctures, oils that can be ingested and ointments that can be applied externally, are showing promise in a wide variety of applications, Lee told me, as physicians discover what works for their patients.
It’s way too early to declare marijuana the cure for cancer, Alzheimer’s or anything else. The cannabinoids in the plant may turn out to be less important than what science learns about the cannabinoids within our bodies. Someday we’ll know much more about maintaining a healthy endocannabinoid system, but we have barely started down that road.
The obstacles on the way are many: A medical establishment with attitudes about cannabis that range from curious skepticism to outright hostility; a marijuana industry with its roots in the counterculture and its eyes on huge profits from the recreational market; media that can’t talk about cannabis without cracking jokes about munchies; a law enforcement establishment built on drug war financing and prohibitionist ideology.
Then there’s Washington, D.C., which hasn’t been able to have a coherent conversation on drug policy since Nancy Reagan declared “Just Say No” to be the final word.
The Obama administration could take the handcuffs off cannabis researchers by changing marijuana’s Schedule 1 classification, a cumbersome but doable process involving the DEA and the FDA. But President Obama said recently he’d rather see Congress take the lead which, face it, won’t happen anytime soon.
So the improvised research process will continue, with more progress likely in countries where marijuana hasn’t been turned into a political football. But there’s great hope that science will unlock the secret of what a Chinese pharmacist thousands of years ago dubbed one of the “supreme elixirs of immortality.”
Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.