For the last 70+ years, cannabis has been vilified as the ‘evil weed’, as a madness-inducing killer plant, and a ‘gateway drug’. In 1970, the US federal government classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug – “a dangerous substance with no valid medical purpose” – and was placed in the same category as heroine.
However, cannabis wasn’t always so hated: George Washington grew hemp and different cultures around the world used cannabis as medicine for thousands of years. Even in the United States, up until fairly recently in the country’s history, cannabis was legal. Now, after many years of being an illegal narcotic, cannabis is making its way into mainstream society as legal medicine.
Cannabis is currently legal in 23 states for medical purposes and research indicates the majority of Americans are in favor of its legalization. The United States is not alone in re-thinking its approach to marijuana, as other countries like Canada, the Netherlands, and Israel allow marijuana for medical purposes and Uruguay has voted to legalize it completely.
Marijuana advocates often point to a startlingly bold statistic: there is no report of anyone ever dying from an overdose of marijuana. It’s worth noting, today’s marijuana is available in stronger versions than in the past and it is possible for powerful strains to be harmful in certain dosages.
The being said, many use cannabis to alleviate pain, help with sleep, stimulate appetite, and take the ‘edge’ off a long day – much the same way some may have a glass of wine before dinner. There is much anecdotal evidence to support the benefits of marijuana use; however, the science behind it – how it works, which of its chemicals affect the body and brain and how – has remained under-developed.
In 1963, a young Israeli scientist, Raphael Mechoulam, conducted experiments with Lebanese hashish and Rhesus monkeys, and discovered tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). He and his team also worked out the chemical structure of cannabidiol (CBD), another significant ingredient in marijuana, and one that has many possible medical uses but no psychoactive effect on humans.
Mechoulam has authored more than 400 scientific papers on marijuana and is widely known as the patriarch of marijuana science. He calls marijuana a “medicinal treasure trove waiting to be discovered”. He does note, however, that marijuana can be harmful for young people and can provoke serious anxiety attacks in others. He also points to studies that indicate cannabis may trigger the onset of schizophrenia in some individuals who are genetically predisposed to the disease.
In 1992, Mechoulam began exploring the human brain and made a spectacular discovery. Him and his colleagues discovered the chemical made by the body that binds to the same brain receptors as THC. Mechoulam named it “anandamide”, based on the Sanskrit word for “joy”.
Since Mechoulam’s discovery, scientists have discovered other endocannabinoids and their receptors. It is thought that these endocannabinoids interact with a specific neurological network in the same way as endorphins and seratonin. Mechoulam explains these compounds are involved in functions like memory, movement, immune health, and protection against neuronal injury or degeneration in Central Nervous System.
Pharmaceutical companies making cannabis-related medicines generally try to isolate individual components, which approach is frowned upon by Mechoulam. He suspects that the chemicals in cannabis work better together, and the ‘why’ behind this ‘entourage-effect’ requires further study.
“We have just scratched the surface,” he says, “and I greatly regret that I don’t have another lifetime to devote to this field, for we may well discover that cannabinoids are involved in some way in all human diseases.”