Paving the Way for Medical Cannabis

by Jesse Knowles

With the recent changes in some states’ legislation concerning the legality of cannabis, its no wonder that many people are beginning to see cannabis in a different light.  While many people choose to use cannabis recreationally, others choose to use it for medicinal purposes.  Unfortunately, many Americans remain skeptical or unclear about cannabis’ medicinal nature and continue to view cannabis solely as a drug that gets users “high”.  The federal government’s classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug helps fuel this skepticism as a Schedule I classification means “that the substance has no currently accepted medical treatment use in the U.S.” However, 23 states now have laws allowing medical marijuana use for certain conditions and recent scientific studies and experimental use have proven some of the medical benefits that cannabis can provide.

Cannabis contains over 80 chemical compounds known as cannabinoids. Cannabinoids bind to different cell receptors in our brain and body and repress the release of certain neurotransmitters. Different cannabinoids have different effects, thus choosing a particular type of cannabis is like choosing a specific medicine based on one’s health needs.  For example, the most well-known cannabinoid THC is responsible for the “high” associated with using marijuana but can also serve as a painkiller, appetite stimulant, nausea reducer, and suppressant of muscle spasms. Other cannabinoids do not have any psychoactive effects and can be anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-cancer cell growth, anti-vomiting, and neuroprotective.

One cannabinoid called CBD acts as a powerful painkiller without any psychoactive effects.  Some patients such as eight-year-old Charlotte Figi also discovered CBD’s anti-seizure qualities through experimental usage. Charlotte was diagnosed with a rare disease known as Dravet Syndrome that causes a severe form of epilepsy. Charlotte was having 300 grand mal seizures a week in which she would lose consciousness, have violent muscle contractions, and sometimes stop breathing. After exhausting all other medical options and watching their daughter lose her ability to walk, talk, and eat, Charlotte’s parents decided to try giving her a high CBD strain of cannabis in oil form after hearing of a young boy’s success story in California.

After receiving her first small dose of cannabis oil, Charlotte stopped having seizures for a whole week.  Today, Charlotte only has seizures two to three times a month when given her daily dose of high-CBD cannabis oil.  Over 40 patients now use this strain of cannabis, named Charlotte’s Web, to help with diseases like cancer and epilepsy.  This strain of cannabis has almost no THC or psychoactive qualities. Other families with similar health issues are moving to states where medical marijuana is legal so they can also try treating their children with cannabis oil. The non-profit organization that produces the cannabis strain Charlotte’s Web has a waiting list of 9,000 patients for epilepsy treatment.

Scientists Giovanni Appendino and Simon Gibbons have also explored cannabis’ medicinal properties. They conducted a study in 2008 to test cannabis’ ability to fight drug -resistant bacteria as conventional antibiotics struggle to hold up against superbugs like MRSA. MRSA is a bacterium that causes infections that do not respond to many antibiotics. When Appendino and Gibbons applied major cannabinoids to MRSA bacterium cultures, the cannabinoids were as effective as the most powerful antibiotic used to kill the MRSA bug. Moreover, out of the cannabinoids tested, the two that were most effective were non-psychoactive. Thus, cannabis could be used to cheaply produce powerful antibiotics that do not cause the patient to experience the “high” frequently associated with the plant.

Critics of medicinal cannabis point out the lack of formal research, but cannabis’ Schedule I classification has severely restricted researchers ability to conduct studies. Before June of this year, researchers had to submit proposed cannabis studies to the U.S. Public Health Service for review even though other Schedule I substances did not. Thus, it was easier to research ecstasy than cannabis. This review process was specifically designed to obstruct cannabis research. Additionally, researchers can only use cannabis obtained from the federally approved grow site at the University of Mississippi, which is inadequate to meet research needs.

Although the federal government’s policy towards cannabis has impeded both research and patients’ ability to receive care, major progress has been made of late with the Obama administration’s decision to get rid of the review barrier to cannabis studies. Also, a bill has been introduced to amend the Controlled Substances Act so that the federal law that criminalizes marijuana would exempt cannabis that had a very low THC content like the Charlotte’s Web strain.  Hopefully, this trend will continue and the medical benefits of cannabis will become apparent and accepted by the American public.