Cannabis in the United States: Cannabis Research

In our last posts, we discussed cannabis advocacy groups and pioneers. As we make our way through different aspects of cannabis and its culture, we want to focus on all the great things cannabis can do. Now it is time to focus on cannabis research: discoveries about the plant and body, what ailments cannabis can help with, and how research is impacted by legality.

Top cannabis research studies

La Guardia reported in 1944 that cannabis did not lead to violence, sex crimes, and addiction to other drugs. At this time, politicians were pushing the narrative that cannabis was a dangerous drug that led to criminal activities. The report was positive for cannabis users.

Studies conducted by an Italian research group discovered a new cannabis compound, THCP (tetrahydrocannabiphorol), which binds to the CB1 receptors better than THC. So far, the research has been done on animals and has shown that THCP has a cannabimimetic activity like THC. Biological effects on humans are continuously being examined.

Neuropsychopharmacology published a study in February 2019 that included a sample size of 700 teens and concluded that there was no significant difference between cannabis users’ and non-cannabis users’ brains. This discovery combatted the rumor that cannabis can affect brain development.

In April 2019, a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found some people were born with mutant CB1 receptors. It dove into the structures of different endocannabinoids in our bodies and the various activation methods of CB1 receptors. This study influenced how we understand cannabinoids and the interactions of the body. It showed that cannabis works in harmony with endocannabinoids found naturally in the body and provides relief. 

CBD and THC get a lot of praise for their medicinal benefits. But in recent years, researchers have found more potent painkillers that lie within the flavonoids of the cannabis plant. In August 2019, a study published in the journal of Phytochemical found cannaflavins A and B are about 30 times more potent than aspirin. This discovery has allowed people to broaden their mindset on the pain management benefits of cannabis.

In 1990, the CB1 and CB2 receptors were found in the endocannabinoid system. In 2016 the first study of CB1 and CB2 receptors was conducted. This study was the first to research the function of these at the membrane level. The study concluded that CB2 receptor activity increased with chronic inflammation, while CB1 receptor activity decreased. It also showed that the selective activation of the CB2 receptor contributes to the medicinal benefits of cannabis. A discovery about the CB1 receptor came in 1988: scientists discovered that rats’ brains, similar to humans, have protein molecules that are activated by THC.

Raphael Mechoulam, who you can read about here, discovered different cannabinoid structures, including the ever-famous THC and CBD from 1963-1964. During his research in the 1960s, he understood the time that it would take for it to be widely accepted. Because of his findings, the first CBD-derived FDA-approved medication, Epidiolex, was brought to the market for people with epilepsy.

What does cannabis help with?

Cannabis has so many properties that can help alleviate symptoms associated with different physical and mental ailments. Below is just a fraction of what cannabis can help. You can see all of the qualifications to become a medical marijuana cardholder in Arizona here.

How does cannabis help with chronic pain?

THC can resemble the cannabinoid chemicals in our Endocannabinoid System (ECS). When ingested, THC can stimulate the cannabinoid receptors in the brain. This activates the brain’s reward system and reduces pain levels. Like THC, CBD binds to and interacts with pain receptors in the brain and helps alleviate pain and inflammation. A study was conducted in 2015 that suggested cannabis or specific isolated cannabinoids may be effective for treating some types of chronic pain, including nerve pain.

How does cannabis help with depression, anxiety, and PTSD?

While not on the list for a medical card in Arizona, cannabis can potentially treat a plethora of mental illnesses, including depression. The endocannabinoid compounds in the ECS can help stabilize moods. A University of Buffalo study was conducted and focused on brain chemicals in the ECS to see cannabis as a possible treatment for chronic stress-induced depression. Scientists are currently performing their research on animals but have discovered that chronic stress can also suppress the brain’s production of endocannabinoids and leads to depression-like behavior. The study concluded that cannabinoids in cannabis can help restore endocannabinoid function and alleviate symptoms of depression.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. Several million people suffer from it. Some cannabis users feel a heightened sense of anxiety when they consume too much cannabis, but, taken at a mild dose and properly, cannabis can help alleviate many symptoms. A survey conducted in 2018 revealed medicinal use of cannabis reduced anxiety and stress by 58%. It also showed that an equal amount of high dosage of THC and CBD is the most effective way to reduce stress.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) doesn’t just affect veterans and is the most common mental illness associated with the trauma of any kind. The Journal of Affective Disorders did a study to show the effects that cannabis has to reduce symptoms of PTSD. It showed that cannabis reduced the severity of intrusions, thoughts of traumatic events, flashbacks, irritability, and anxiety between 51%-67%. While symptoms can be reduced, it is not a permanent solution.

How does cannabis help with seizures?

Cannabis and seizures have been a very talked-about research subject. Epidiolex is the only FDA-approved seizure medication containing CBD and was authorized for two types of epilepsy: Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome. THC and CBD have been shown to block pain and chemicals bind with receptors in the brain. This blocks the transmission of pain signals to the brain and body. 

How does cannabis help with Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s Disease is caused by cognitive degeneration. Cannabis’s endocannabinoid contains anti-inflammatory properties that can help fight against brain inflammation that leads to Alzheimer’s Disease. A preclinical study showed that small doses of THC can potentially slow down the production of beta-amyloid proteins, a characteristic of the progression of Alzheimer’s. A study done by The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that cannabis extracts with THC can relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Remember to consult with your medical care provider before consuming cannabis for medical purposes and talk with your Patient Consultant about which strains may be best for your needs.

What are challenges in cannabis research?

Cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, which usually means that research is halted due to the classification of addiction and lack of medical benefits; however, the scheduling of cannabis did not prevent it from being researched. While it is federally illegal, the U.S. government still provides funding for cannabis research. In some states, scientists that research cannabis must apply for and receive a controlled substance certificate from a state board of medical examiners to conduct clinical trials or any other activity that involves a Schedule 1 substance. 

Due to the status of the legality of cannabis in the United States, there are strict regulations and policies about cannabis research and its benefits. Research restrictions have left patients, health care professionals, and policymakers without sufficient evidence needed to make decisions about cannabis. This poses a public health risk.

It can be difficult for researchers to obtain the quantity, type, and quality of cannabis to address specific research questions about the health benefits of cannabis. To get the product needed for research, a network of funders that can support cannabis research and its effect on the body and mind is needed.

Our next post will discuss the start of the legalization of cannabis in different states. We’ll break down the timeline of legalization and how legalization has impacted and influenced them.