Pot has been generating a lot of buzz lately — and not for its ability to make you blotto.
In the past five years, research on the use of medical marijuana in many age-related diseases — including cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — has accelerated and the data that has emerged is compelling. “Cannabis has been shown in clinical trials to have therapeutic value,” says Sean McAllister, a scientist at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute.
Regulations are shifting as a result. Twenty-three states now allow the use of medical marijuana and three more have legislation pending. This weekend, The New York Times editorial board came out in support of repealing the federal ban on marijuana.
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What’s more, research has uncovered that you might be able to get many of the therapeutic benefits without the famous high.
The active chemical compounds in marijuana are called cannabinoids. There are more than 80 of these unique compounds in each plant. The two most prevalent are THC, which triggers the well-documented “stoned” feeling, and cannabidiol, or CBD. Scientific and anecdotal evidence shows that CBD triggers little to no psychotropic effect.
CBD has “anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, and neuroprotective effects,” writes researcher Antonio Waldo Zuardi in the academic review Cannabidiol: From an Inactive Cannabinoid to a Drug With a Wide Spectrum of Action, published in the official journal of the Brazilian Association of Psychiatry, Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria. “Studies have suggested a wide range of possible therapeutic effects of cannabidiol on several conditions,” Zuardi writes. Those conditions include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, other inflammatory diseases, nausea and cancer.
It has been shown to have “direct anti-tumor activity,” adds McAllister.
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Marijuana is also a promising treatment for severe forms of epilepsy. A young girl in Colorado, Charlotte Figi, was suffering up to 300 grand mal seizures a week when she went on a CBD-based medicine. Today, according to a CNN story, she suffers only two to three a month.
How Cannabis Works
The human body naturally produces compounds called endocannabinoids, which regulate important physiological processes such as learning and memory, pain and appetite. These endocannabinoids interact with two different types of cell receptors — CB1 receptors are located primarily in the brain and CB2 receptors are located primarily in cells of the immune system.
When ingested, THC and CBD work by mimicking these naturally-occurring endocannabinoids.
THC, the psychoactive element in marijuana, is attracted to the CB1 receptors in the brain. CBD does not interact efficiently with CB1 receptors, which is why it has much less psychotropic effect. Both THC and CBD can have a positive effect on a wide array of symptoms, as highlighted in this graphic chart.
“CBD does not produce the overt psychotropic effects that are associated with THC,” says McAllister. It has been shown to have anti-anxiety properties, he continues, “but it is never going to make you high.”
The emerging research on CBD has inspired a flurry of over-the-counter products that contain the substance. Product manufacturers try to skirt federal law by deriving CBD from industrial hemp, similar to marijuana and naturally higher in the compound.
Whether these products (which include CBD-based gums and hemp oils) are legal to sell directly to consumers across the country, however, remains murky.
“Vendors who say that extracting from industrial hemp is legal are either deluded by what seems a gray area in the legal exception for hemp or wilfully misleading,” says Greg Gerdeman, assistant professor of biology at Eckerd College. “CBD is illegal [under federal law], prohibited by Schedule 1 status.” The federal government defines Schedule 1 drugs “as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Selling those substances can be cause for criminal prosecution.
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Gerdeman also notes poor quality control in an industry that is in its Wild West days. Consumers who opt to use cannabis-based products can’t be entirely sure what they’re getting. “Third-party analyses of some popular hemp oil products are showing lower than promised CBD, in addition to microbial and/or heavy metal contaminants,” says Gerdeman.
On the other hand, he acknowledges, there's solid science behind the medical use of marijuana. “CBD has shown really interesting anti-cancer properties,” he says. “And there is pre-clinical support for the idea that THC could help delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”
To date, no studies have specifically looked at the connection between cannabis use and longevity, says McAllister. But the beneficial role it appears to play in many age-related diseases is encouraging.
Is cannabils a cure-all? The jury is still out. “It needs to be studied more,” says Gerdeman. “After all, Bob Marley died of cancer.”