Written by: Chris Cano M.P.A.
Executive Director of Central Florida Normal
Central Florida Norml
In the second installment of this multi-part series on cannabis and health, we will examine the certain components of the plant known as cannabinoids, in particular, cannabidiol or CBD. These neuromodulatory lipids and their receptors regulate the human body at the molecular level in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells culminating in a neuro-network called the endocannabinoid system. Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond.
Most people have heard of the chemical called THC, which is the ingredient in marijuana that gets users high. But recently, attention has shifted to another compound in marijuana called CBD — and for good reason. While doctors for political or philosophical reasons can’t seem to look past certain side effects of THC, CBD doesn’t seem to present that problem. Evidence of CBD’s medical benefits continues to grow.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabis compound that has significant medical benefits, but does not make people feel stoned and can actually counteract the psychoactivity of THC. The fact that CBD-rich cannabis is non-psychoactive or less psychoactive than THC-dominant strains makes it an appealing option for patients looking for relief from inflammation, pain, anxiety, psychosis, seizures, spasms, and other conditions without disconcerting feelings of lethargy or dysphoria.
Scientific and clinical research, mostly sponsored by the US government, underscores CBD’s potential as a treatment for a wide range of conditions, including arthritis, diabetes, alcoholism, MS, chronic pain, schizophrenia, PTSD, depression, antibiotic-resistant infections, epilepsy, and other neurological disorders. CBD has demonstrable neuroprotective and neurogenic effects, and its anti-cancer properties are currently being investigated at several academic research centers in the United States and elsewhere.
Even though CBD shows much promise as a medicine, it remains illegal in many parts of the world. CBD is classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States and a Schedule II drug in Canada. Yet, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a request to trial a pharmaceutical version of CBD in children with rare forms of epilepsy. The drug is made by GW Pharmaceuticals and is called Epidiolex. According to the company, the drug consists of “more than 98 percent CBD, trace quantities of some other cannabinoids, and zero THC.” GW Pharmaceuticals makes another cannabis-based drug called Sativex, which has been approved in over 24 countries for treating multiple sclerosis.
A patent awarded to the U.S. Health and Human Services in 2003 (US6630507) clearly covers the use of CBD as a treatment for various neurodegenerative and inflammatory disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia. This medical evidence should be proof enough that prohibition and the War on Drugs are leaving casualties outside of the streets. It’s leaving them in our hearts every time we lose a mother or father, grandmother or grandfather to these age-related neuro-inflammatory diseases.
Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, and his co-workers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, elucidated the exact chemical structure of CBD in 1963 and of THC the following year. It was generally assumed for almost two decades that the cannabinoids exerted effects not by binding to a specific receptor but “nonspecifically” by altering the lipid structure of cellular membranes. Mechoulam established that the action was specific by purifying THC and showing that only the natural version of the molecule —and not its synthetic mirror image— was exerting the effect.
In 1988 Alynn Howlett found that THC was indeed activating a receptor. It was dubbed “CB1” and was found in those areas of the brain involved in movement, stress, cognitive function — “everywhere it would be expected,” said Mechoulam, given what was known about the effects of cannabis on people. “A receptor doesn’t exist in the brain just because there’s a plant out there,” Mechoulam reasoned, “chances are there are endogenous compounds that will act on these receptors —so we went after them.” Whereas others were looking for peptides, Mechoulam figured the CB1 receptor would be activated by a lipid. Sophisticated analytical techniques and brilliant, dedicated lab workers enabled Mechoulam to isolate a cannabinoid produced by the body itself —arachidonoyl-ethanolamide or AEA, which his colleague William Devane dubbed “anandamide,” incorporating the Sanskrit word for “bliss.”
Mechoulam’s lab isolated a second endogenous compound, arachidonoyl glyceride, or 2-AG, which is more abundant in the body but less potent than anandamide. Although their structures are different, AEA, 2-AG and THC have similar pharmacological effects. The receptors to which they bind weave in and out of the cell membrane and are coupled to a protein that triggers events within the cell leading to slowed release of neurotransmitters. Because the cannabinoids affect the intensity with which other neurotransmitters are firing, they modulate numerous systems within the body. Mechoulam said, “There is almost no physiological system that has been looked into in which endocannabinoids don’t play a certain part.” CBD binds to a second cannabinoid receptor —CB2—originally found in spleen cells by S. Munro of Cambridge University in 1993 and subsequently found in the stomach, liver, heart, kidney, lymph and immune cells, bones, endocrine glands, and throughout the peripheral nervous system.
CBD’s lipid-solubility enables it to get into places in the brain that conventional neurotransmitters cannot reach. It is a potent anti-oxidative agent. It turns out to be an antagonist to a recently discovered receptor called GPR-55 to which THC and 2-AG bind as agonists. It blocks the uptake of adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that may promote sleep. It blocks the formation of various cytokines (signaling compounds not released by nerves or glands) under certain circumstances. It activates the serotonin receptors. No wonder, then, that CBD plays a role in many clinical conditions.
Paul Consroe and colleagues in Brazil led an experiment in which CBD was tested as a treatment for intractable epilepsy. Patients stayed on the anticonvulsants they had been on, which hadn’t eliminated their seizures, and added 200mg/day of CBD or a placebo. Of the seven patients getting CBD over the course of several months, only one showed no improvement; three became seizure-free; one experienced only one or two seizures; and two experienced reduced severity and occurrence of seizures.
Dr. Mechoulam has and is still currently investigating CBD’s use as a treatment for diabetes, nausea, PTSD, chronic pain, and treatment of substance abuse. Yet, barriers to research and approval for treatment in Western Civilization remain hindered due to cannabis’s current prohibition.
Today marijuana is still demonized for its effects on the human body by prohibitionist forces such as the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Drug Free America Foundation. With such scientific evidence, and the call for a removal of research barriers, to continue to support prohibition is to promote death sentences on our families. But, in today’s self-serving interests of American politics, science and compassion seem to be considered anathema. This would explain why eighty years of prohibition steeped in racism and conjecture still remains the status quo. Choose to fight back against the status quo by arming yourself with facts. Understand the real value in cannabis. It is that value that makes it such an integral part of human life for the last 10,000 years. Its integral nature and value can rarely be replaced by man-made substitutes, and for this reason, the powers that be continue to push prohibition. But, that is a conversation for another time…