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The medical benefits of marijuana are becoming hard to ignore, and the research has only just begun. Currently, 23 states have approved its use for conditions including pain, nausea, and glaucoma. Meanwhile, an influx of families are relocating to Colorado to get a strain of marijuana (called Charlotte’s Web) for the treatment of seizures. (3)
While users have experienced the benefits of marijuana for years, the federal government lists it as a “Schedule I Drug,” which means it has no accepted medical use at a federal level. With legal medical use now in place in a number of states, for the first time researchers can study its effects on humans without being thrown in jail.
In advance of the marijuana research wave coming, I thought it wise for all of us to get a brief tutorial on how it works. The chemical that gets folks high, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was first isolated in the sixties. Since then, several other components have been identified including cannabidiol, which is the compound used in treating epilepsy and does not make people high. (3,7)
More recently, scientists have discovered 2 major receptors that help cannabinoids bind to cells.
- CB1 is the more common receptor (that gets you high) which is widely distributed throughout the brain, with concentrations in areas dealing with pain and memory. These receptors do not exist in the lungs or heart, which is one reason why even high dosages are generally considered safe.
- CB2 is the other cannabinoid receptor that is found mostly in the immune system. This is an area of great excitement for possible medical use, as it seems to regulate inflammation and immunity.
CB1 is the receptor responsible for “the munchies,” as it triggers appetite centers in the brain that have been shown to be beneficial for AIDS patients and for those who need to gain or maintain weight. It also suppresses nausea and pain signals, which has been useful for chronic pain and cancer patients. (8,9)
The CB1 receptor is also responsible for short-term memory loss, as well as the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and glutamate, which create the “high” that made marijuana famous. Dr. David Plurad, a UCLA researcher, is quick to point out in a recent Scientific American article that, “There is never going to be one answer for marijuana. It’s good for you, it’s bad for you.” (1)
Interestingly, there has also been a small but expanding body of research indicating subtle but apparently permanent effects on memory and cognitive functions in the children of women who used cannabis during pregnancy. (4)
While the federal government is trying to sort out whether or not marijuana should be legal, drug companies are already designing drugs that deliver the benefits without the cognitive concerns. Soon drugs such as Epidiolex (a liquid formulation of pure plant-derived cannabidiol) will be marked for seizures, and Sativex (an oromucosal spray) for muscle spasticity and pain.
Let’s stay tuned as science continues to explore the largely uncharted realms of marijuana.
What are your thoughts on the medical benefits versus the negative health effects of marijuana use?