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The Decade Of The Brain And Medical Legalization Of Cannabis

Research on the medical uses of cannabis was still restricted in the late 1980s and early 1990s, both in the United States and internationally. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) was mostly in charge of research at the time, and it was funding studies to learn more about the harmful effects of THC and cannabis. Only one grow house at the University of Mississippi provided medical-grade cannabis for research purposes which was the brain behind the medical legalization of cannabis.

NIDA had no idea that their research would lead to some of the most fascinating discoveries we've ever made about the human brain—discoveries that would erupt into what became known among brain researchers and scientists as "the Decade of the Brain."

There were more advances in neurology in the 1990s than in all prior years combined! Not only did our knowledge of the brain grow by leaps and bounds, but we also learned about the underlying mechanisms for a variety of diseases. It's all thanks to marijuana.

But wait a second, let's turn it down a notch. Dr. Raphael Mechoulam and his colleague Yehiel Gaoni discovered and synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol in 1964. (THC). This was a huge stride forward in the field of cannabis treatment, and Mechoulam is known as the "grandfather of cannabis science." THC was the focus of practically all cannabis research for decades after that. We had a decent grasp of what THC was—its pharmacology, biochemistry, and clinical effects—during this time, but we didn't know how it functioned at the molecular level in the brain to drive appetite, relieve pain, or alter consciousness.

Researches Carried Out On Cannabis

A blurred image of a man wearing a medical goggle, a nose mask, latex gloves on both hands and holding a cannabis leaf while inspecting it
A blurred image of a man wearing a medical goggle, a nose mask, latex gloves on both hands and holding a cannabis leaf while inspecting it

Scientists Allyn Howlett and William Devane discovered that the brain has specialized receptors for cannabinoids in a government-funded study done through the St. Louis University School of Medicine in 1988, and it turned out that the brain had more of these receptors than any other organ. Researchers were able to map where these receptors were most concentrated using a potent form of synthetic THC, and discovered they were most concentrated in the areas responsible for mental and physical processes: the hippocampus (memory), cerebral cortex (higher cognition), cerebellum (motor coordination), basal ganglia (movement), hypothalamus (appetite), and amygdala (emotion) (emotions).

The THC receptor was cloned by Lisa Matsuda and her coworkers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 1990. (called the CB1 receptor). This was critical because it allowed researchers to start molding "keys" to unlock the receptors' "locks." The CB2 receptor, a second cannabinoid receptor, was identified and cloned in 1993. The immune system and the peripheral nervous system are the primary sites for this receptor. The gut, spleen, liver, heart, kidneys, bones, blood arteries, lymph cells, endocrine glands, and reproductive organs all have CB2 receptors.

Mechoulam, in collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health, discovered that our bodies produce their own cannabis-like compound, N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA, more commonly known as anandamide, and named after the Sanskrit word for "bliss," which binds to the same CB1 receptors as THC. Soon after, Mechoulam and his colleagues discovered 2-arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG, a second endocannabinoid that binds to both the CB1 and CB2 receptors.

The discovery of receptors that are specifically designed to interact with chemical compounds found in cannabis, combined with the discovery that our bodies produce compounds similar to THC, ushered humanity into yet another MAJOR breakthrough: the endocannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery. This system, which is found in fish, reptiles, earthworms, amphibians, birds, and mammals, is thought to have evolved 600 million years ago and serves a very important and basic function in animal physiology: maintaining homeostasis.

More Discoveries Made

A white hand wearing a ring on the little finger holding a bunch of cannabis leaves
A white hand wearing a ring on the little finger holding a bunch of cannabis leaves

"Advances in the burgeoning field of cannabinoid studies would pave the way for new treatment strategies for various pathological conditions—cancer, diabetes, neuropathic pain, arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, depression, and many other diseases that seemed beyond the reach of conventional cures," according to Martin Lee, author and founder of Project CBD.

Cannabinoid receptors (CB1, CB2) modulate pain, inflammation, appetite, gastrointestinal motility, and sleep cycles, as well as the ebb and flow of immune cells, hormones, and mood-altering neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate, according to other studies.

People began to question the rationale of cannabis prohibitions in light of rising incarceration rates and promising new research into medical benefits of cannabis. The tide of popular support for medical marijuana grew stronger. California approved Proposition 215 (also known as the Compassionate Use Act) in 1996 to legalize medical marijuana. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington followed suit in 1998, and 30 states now have medicinal programs (as of this writing).

Inconsistency In The Federal Government's Stance

A wooden gavel and a cannabis leaf
A wooden gavel and a cannabis leaf

The federal government's attitude on cannabis has an interesting level of inconsistency. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I substance, which means it has "no currently acknowledged medical purpose in treatment in the United States." Despite this, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) of the United States possesses a patent for medicinal usage. Patent #6,630,507 (commonly referred to as Patent '507) was issued in 2003 and covers the essential medical characteristics of cannabis, highlighting CBD as a strong antioxidant and neuroprotectant, as well as being very safe for human use.

The use of cannabis "as antioxidant compounds and compositions...that operate as free radical scavengers" and "in the prevention and treatment of pathological conditions...due to cardiovascular and neurovascular disorders and neurodegenerative illnesses" is protected by the patent '507. The patent covers "free radical-related diseases," such as:

  • ischemia (tissue hypoxia), ischemia/reperfusion injury, and myocardial ischemia or infarction
  • Inflammatory diseases and systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Cerebrovascular accidents (like stroke) and spinal cord trauma
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis or diabetes)
  • Cataract formation and uveitis
  • Emphysema
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Oxygen toxicity
  • Neoplasia or undesired cellular apoptosis
  • Radiation sickness

According to the patent, cannabinoids' antioxidative qualities may assist central nervous system diseases such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, HIV dementia, and autoimmune neurodegenerative diseases such as encephalitis and hypoxia.

That's a long list for a medicine that hasn't been proven to have any medical value! It's evident that dismissing cannabis' medical usefulness is more of a political decision than a scientific one.

The present catch-22 in cannabis science in the United States is that it is difficult to study because it is classified as a Schedule I substance. However, because it hasn't been properly examined, it is still classified as a Schedule I substance. Despite the current circumstances in the United States, significant research is being conducted abroad, with countries such as Israel (headed by Dr. Mechoulam) leading the way. Because it's so difficult to conduct appropriate research in the United States, Israel has become the epicenter of cannabis research. Many American corporations outsource research to Israeli facilities. Other countries, such as China and Iran, are also exploring the endocannabinoid system in depth.

Final Thoughts

In the United States, medical marijuana is becoming more widely available. It's commonly used to relieve chronic pain, muscle spasms, nausea, and vomiting, as well as to boost appetite. Smoking, on the other hand, can impair thinking and memory, raise the chance of accidents, and injure the lungs and cause cancer.

More research is needed to fully comprehend the advantages of medical marijuana. Research, access, and legality will all be challenging unless the federal government removes it from the Schedule I controlled substance list.

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