To the cannabis skeptics, “medical marijuana” is and has always been a “back door for recreational pot.” This point of view was reinforced by decades of propaganda against cannabis use and made all the easier to buy into by the cottage industry of doctors willing to rubber-stamp medical cards for the flimsiest of reasons. It’s an understandable position to take; there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about medical cannabis usage.
As a molecular research scientist, I wanted to know if these doubts were rooted in facts or just anecdotes. And the truth is that until recently there just wasn’t enough peer-reviewed evidence that cannabis had genuine medical benefit – mainly because anti-cannabis laws in the United States and Canada had made medical research extremely difficult. But, as the saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I needed to do the work and study the possibilities myself. And the more time I spent researching the medical properties of cannabis, the more reasons I found to believe in its potential.
My research and the research of others indicates that cannabis has legitimate medical applications, and it’s my personal belief that it has the capacity to become an important adjunct therapy to traditional pharmaceutical treatments.
In basic scientific terms, humans have an endocannabinoid system that helps regulate our mood, appetite, pain-sensation, memory, and other biological functions. When this system becomes altered during disease, stress, pain, or other conditions, many physiological processes can function sub-optimally. However, cannabis has specific chemicals that can mimic our own biological signals involved in the endocannabinoid system and can work to restore or normalize our physiology.
Biologically speaking, being able to alter our endocannabinoid system provides compelling evidence that cannabis has the capability to operate in a therapeutic capacity.
The implications of medical cannabis
We have just barely begun to scratch the surface of what medical cannabis can do. There’s plenty of precedent for plant-based therapies performing at a high level; for instance, some of the most potent medications in the world are adapted from the opium poppy. Even more interestingly, prior to its prohibition cannabis had extensive use in medical and therapeutic contexts, with evidence dating back thousands of years and even peer-reviewed studies starting in the mid-1800s – all of which got swept aside over the past few decades of prohibition and the “war on drugs” mentality.
In many ways, today’s cannabis renaissance is picking up where society left off years ago. We are rediscovering what previous generations already knew, while making new discoveries based on modern science. It’s an exciting time to be in the medical research field, and not just because we’re learning so much – cannabis has so much potential that it has forced us to change our approach to medical research. Indeed, traditionally, clinical research mainly involves studying one drug with one specific target and one desired outcome. Cannabis, on the other hand, has hundreds of biologically important chemicals that affect multiple targets in the body and produce various effects. Instead of asking “how do we solve this problem,” we find ourselves saying “we have this incredibly versatile solution – what can we use it for?”
Cannabis has so many active ingredients, but it’s the way these different compounds and chemicals interact with one another that makes the puzzle so complex. It’s called the “Entourage Effect” – cannabinoids and terpenes affect one another to create different therapeutic effects through the endocannabinoid system. In other words, an isolated CBD compound can produce different effects and different levels of effectiveness by adding THC and/or various terpenes to it. Considering that there are over 100 terpenes isolated in cannabis so far, and that terpenes are just one type of active ingredient in cannabis, the number of potential combinations and the doses of each for discovering therapies through the Entourage Effect is almost endless.
Because of this, I believe that cannabis has the potential to contribute significantly to the health of a huge number of people who are still suffering from illness despite our most advanced medical therapies. This is a bold statement, but it’s true – it’s incredibly rare that a substance with this many potential applications just “appears” in the hands of medical science. We are still discovering what this incredible plant is capable of – and one of the most important steps in that journey is convincing other cannabis-skeptics that their doubt may be misplaced.