The recent shift in public opinion about marijuana has propelled a historic heave against the research blockade.
By April Short
In spite of decades of politicization and prohibition, cannabis science is beginning to experience a rebirth—so much so that it was the topic of National Geographic’s most recent cover feature.
“We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant,” writes the article’s author, Hampton Sides.
“In the apparent rush to accept weed into the mainstream, to tax and regulate it, to legitimze and commodify it, important questions arise. What’s going on inside this plant? How does marijuana really affect our bodies and our brians? What might the chemicals in it tell us about how our neurological systems function?” Sides asks.
As more and more states legalize the contentious herb, the lack of controlled, scientific research looking into the safety and potential health benefits of marijuana in human subjects is glaring. The reason for this scientific void is not a lack of interested researchers or compelling hypotheses. It is political. The US government has in place a series of systems that effectively act as blockades against any scientist who would dare study the benefits of cannabis, so modern research on the herb has fallen behind. Due to excess review requirement put in place in 1999 by a tough-on-drugs Clinton administration, it’s easier for an independent researcher to study any substance other than cannabis. This includes the plant’s neighbors on the government’s Schedule I list of most dangerous drugs, like heroin and meth.
Countless personal anecdotes proclaim marijuana’s life-saving capabilities— the most conspicuous of which are the stories of concentrated cannabis oil’s ability to stop seizures in epileptic children. The web is also full of self-documented cases and news stories showing the oil’s ability to clear up skin cancer, Crohn’s disease and other serious illnesses. Despite the clear and urgent necessity for clinical trials, marijuana’s healing effects remain largely mysterious, thanks to policies leftover from the Reefer Madness era.
Animal and lab studies out of other countries, like Israel and Spain, have illustrated the plant’s ability to mitigate all number of ailments, including cancer. And, as Paul Armentano of the marijuana legalization organization NORML points out in a recent article, marijuana is actually one of the most studied substances of modern times, and its human use dates back thousands of years.
“A search on PubMed, the repository for all peer-reviewed scientific papers, using the term “marijuana” yields more than 21,000 scientific papers referencing the plant and/or its constituents, nearly half of which have been published just within the past decade. By contrast, a keyword search using the term ‘ibuprofen’ yields only about half as many papers; a search associated with the prescription painkiller ‘hydrocodone’ yields only 700 studies, while a search using the keyword ‘adderall’ yields fewer than 200 peer-reviewed papers.
The recent shift in public opinion marijuana, coupled with the undeniable proof of its healing potentials, has propelled a historic heave against the research blockade. It is beginning to crumble. After decades of work to get FDA approval, the first ever placebo-controlled clinical trial looking at cannabis for human subjects in the US is just about set to leave the ground in Arizona, pending a final DEA approval of the study facilities. Several new animal studies are also breaking ground, and the government has tripled its production of cannabis in response (all legal cannabis studies in the US are required to use government-grown weed—part of the red tape that has slowed research down significantly).
All in all, marijuana science is a topic very much in vogue, which is likely why a publication as esteemed and historic as National Geographic chose it as the focus of its June 2015 issue. The feature examined the many ways marijuana is shifting in our culture—and in the process urging us to rethink everything we thought we knew about the drug. While noting what a shame it is that there isn’t more pot science already out there, Sides delves into the existing research—primarily performed on lab rats—and outlines some of the most fascinating facts we do know about the cannabis plant to date.
Here are five of the most mind-boggling marijuana science breakthroughs to date, as outlined in National Geographic:
1. THC gets you high, CBD stops seizures and shrinks tumors.
“[O]ne day in 1963 a young organic chemist in Israel named Raphael Mechoulam, working at the Weizmann Institute of Science outside Tel Aviv, decided to peer into the plant’s chemical composition. It struck him as odd that even though morphine had been teased from opium in 1805 and cocaine from coca leaves in 1855, scientists had no idea what the principal psychoactive ingredient was in marijuana.”
Mechoulam went on to become known as “the patriarch of cannabis science.” He was the first person to identify the active compounds in the cannabis plant. The first one he isolated was tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Today, THC is practically a household name, famously responsible for the “high” effect of marijuana. He and his team also isolated CBD, which is now understood to be responsible for many of cannabis’ medical properties—including anti-seizure and cancer shrinking.
“It was just a plant,” Mechoulam, now 84, told National Geographic. “It was a mess, a mélange of unidentified compounds.”
2. Growers are beginning to zero in on the types of cannabis best suited for medical purposes.
In the article, Hague takes the author into a propagation room where young cannabis clones, all “rich in CBD and other compounds that have shown at least anecdotal promise in treating such diseases and disorders as multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, schizophrenia, osteoporosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)” are being grown strictly for medical purposes.
Hague explains that these strains (which are low in THC, because CBD and THC naturally counter each other) keep him “up at night, dreaming about what they can do.” He notes that marijuana “contains numerous substances—cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes—that have never been investigated in depth.”
3. Animal studies have prove THC can reduce cancer cells—there just haven’t been any human trials to date.
Manuel Guzmán of the Complutense University of Madrid, “a biochemist who’s studied cannabis for about 20 years,” has worked with his colleagues using cannabis compounds to treat animals with cancer for the last 15 years.
In a groundbreaking study, which he showed Sides, cancer cells injected into lab rats were completely destroyed by THC.
“On [Guzmán’s] screen flash two MRIs of a rat’s brain. The animal has a large mass lodged in the right hemisphere, caused by human brain tumor cells Guzmán’s researchers injected. He zooms in. The mass bulges hideously. The rat, I think, is a goner. ‘This particular animal was treated with THC for one week,” Guzmán continues. “And this is what happened afterward.” The two images that now fill his screen are normal. The mass has not only shrunk—it’s disappeared.’”
In this study, Guzmán and his colleagues found that the tumors were reduced in one third of the rats, and eradicated in another third. “Through his years of research [Guzmán] has ascertained that a combination of THC, CBD, and temozolomide (a moderately successful conventional drug) works best in treating brain tumors in mice. A cocktail composed of these three compounds appears to attack brain cancer cells in multiple ways, preventing their spread but also triggering them, in effect, to commit suicide.”
The National Geographic article warns that, while the results of Guzmán’s research are promising, mice are not humans and the effects might not be the same.
4. Chemicals in cannabis act similarly to beneficial chemicals in our brains.
It is possible that the compounds in cannabis can mimic our natural brain chemicals and fill in where our brains might have become deficient. This is something cannabis journalist Angela Bacca (who used cannabis to successfully reverse her crohn’s disease) has written about in detail. As Bacca explains:
“The chemical compounds produced by cannabis that cause the “high,” (phytocannabinoids) actually mimic chemical compounds our bodies already produce, use and need to regulate essential functions. These are functions like pain, mood, digestion, appetite, inflammation and sleep. Some of these cannabinoids are already pretty well known — ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), for example. Phytocannabinoids work on the same receptors and perform similar functions to endogenous cannabinoids (or cannabinoids that naturally exist in the human brain). For instance, THC works on the same receptors and performs similar functions to anandamide, which can be produced by rigorous exercise and is the compound responsible for the ‘runner’s high.”
According to the National Geographic article, Guzmán’s lab has looked into this, studying how the chemicals in cannabis work the same way as the chemicals in our bodies to protect our brains against various physical and emotional traumas.
“Our brain needs to remember things, of course,” Guzmán said to National Geographic, “but it also needs to forget things—horrific things, unnecessary things. It’s much like the memory in your computer—you have to forget what is not necessary, just like you need to periodically delete old files. And you have to forget what is not good for your mental health—a war, a trauma, an aversive memory of some kind. The cannabinoid system is crucial in helping us push bad memories away.”
5. Cannabis can stop epileptic seizures.
“A good deal of anecdotal evidence shows that high-CBD strains of cannabis can have a strong antiseizure effect,” Sides writes. “The medical literature, though scant, goes back surprisingly far. In 1843 a British doctor named William O’Shaughnessy published an article detailing how cannabis oil had arrested an infant’s relentless convulsions.”
Pediatric neurologist Elizabeth Thiele of Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital is co-leading a study to assess CBD for treating refractory childhood epilepsy. She told Sides that the early results of the CBD study are encouraging.
“CBD is not a silver bullet—it doesn’t work for everybody,” she said to National Geographic. “But I’m impressed. It clearly can be a very effective treatment for many people. I have several kids in the study who’ve been completely seizure free for over a year.”