Can a plant provide scientists with the active ingredients for new medicines and improve the health of millions worldwide? Yes! It’s not unusual. In fact, with Cannabis, it’s about time.
Although, Cannabis has been used for thousands of years, it was pronounced illegal after dogged propaganda created by Henry J. Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department's Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Former president Richard Nixon reinforced its illegal status by establishing the Controlled Substances Act and incorrectly declaring Cannabis as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. In the late 20th Century, people were re-introduced to Cannabis as an illicit plant that is smoked, smells funny, and makes one goofy or sleepy. Media depicted “weed” in popular movies such as, Up in Smoke, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Terms of Endearment. These movies used Cannabis to symbolize a questioning counter-culture through accidental heroes, high school students, and a young woman dying of cancer. Meanwhile, scientists were quietly studying Cannabis active ingredients and creating synthetic forms as pharmaceutical drugs.
Aspirin was initially derived from traditional remedies of willow and other salicylate-rich plants. In 400 B.C., Hippocrates documented the use of salicylic tea. In 1853, chemist Charles Gerhardt treated acetyl chloride with sodium salicylate to produce acetylsalicylic acid, the active ingredient. In 1899, Bayer named their preparation of acetylsalicylic acid, Aspirin, and began selling it around the world.[i] A more modern example of a plant-derived pharmaceutical is paclitaxelis. Paclitaxelis, or Taxol®, was derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and is used in the treatment of breast, lung, and ovarian cancer, as well as Kaposi's sarcoma. Plants have been the originating source of pharmaceutical drugs many times over. Despite government prohibition, Cannabis is finally taking its place in the history of modern medicinal interventions.
Not all about THC
In 1940, Dr. Roger Adams at the University of Illinois identified cannabidiol (CBD), one of the phytocannabinoids of the Cannabis plant.[ii] Two years later, Wollner, Matchett, Levine, and Loewe identified THC as a mixture of –(-) Δ8 and –(-) Δ9tetrahydrocannabinol.[iii] However, these are not the natural forms of the major constituents of Cannabis. The plant produces mostly THCA or CBDA, the acidic forms of THC and CBD. Current scientific evidence proposes that these acidic phytocannabinoids may be better absorbed and are more bio-available than their neutral counterparts, THC and CBD. Depending on the varietal, Cannabis also produces other phytocannabinoids. THCv is a smaller form of THC that does not cause a psychoactive “high” and may be a potential treatment for diabetes. THCp is a recently identified larger form of THC that may be more potent than THC.
CBD has been rising in popularity ever since former Surgeon General Dr. Sunjay Gupta revealed its efficacy in treating a rare seizure disorder in a young child. Currently, hemp derived CBD is sold in nutritional stores, national convenience stores, and Cannabis dispensaries. CBD has also been incorporated into soft drinks, coffee, and gummies. Unfortunately, the media around CBD has misrepresented its effectiveness and CBD companies sell their products at doses that are rarely effective. Consumers who purchase CBD are sometimes disappointed with the results. Likely, at the correct dose, CBD can be effective for pain, inflammation, and social anxiety. However, the appropriate dose and route of administration has yet to be sufficiently demonstrated in clinical trial.
The Cannabis plant also produces terpenes, a large chemical class found in most plants. Terpenes produce an aroma that gives Cannabis its pine-like, citrus, floral, or skunk-like smells. Terpenes will vary from varietal to varietal and will also change with growing method, soil conditions, and other environmental influences. Terpenes in plant essential oil are used for medicinal reasons in the practice of aromatherapy. Although there are few clinical studies on terpenes, they are often applied to the skin and inhaled to treat many conditions from insomnia to stomach illness to cancer. The synergy between Cannabis plant terpenes and phytocannabinoids may produce different effects. The Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium (the CESC) proposes that certain terpenes and THC will either produce an energetic effect or a hypnotic effect when smoking or vaporizing Cannabis.
Scientists, Dr. Jean Talleyrand, M.D. and Dr. John Abrams, Ph.D., have co-founded the non-profit Cannabis research group, the CESC (www.thecesc.org), in California. Their approach is to study Cannabis culture in an effort to bring a clinical science approach to Cannabis use. In 2018, the CESC’s flagship study, The Dosing Project, quickly discovered that people who smoked approximately ¾ of a gram of high THC Cannabis flower reported complete improvement of pain and sleep symptoms. “First approaching clinical study in the field will better inform what we look for in the lab,” states Dr. Talleyrand, Chief Medical Officer.
[i] Jeffreys D. Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug. Chemical Heritage Foundation2008; 8-13; 46-48; 69-75 [ii] Adams R et al. Structure of Cannabidiol, a Product Isolated from Marihuana Extract of Minnesota Wild Hemp. Journal of the American Chemical Society 1940; 62(1); 196-200 [iii]Pertwee R G. Cannabinoid Pharmacology: The first 66 Years. British Journal of Pharmacology 2006 Jan; 147(Suppl. 1); S163-S171