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Medical Marijuana: Pharmacology, Politics and History

Published: April 7, 2011

Last week I reported that sales of medical marijuana had reached an all time high. All puns aside, medical marijuana sales were recorded at $1.7 billion last year, nearly catching the $1.9 billion per year sales of Viagra, despite the lack of both Bob Dole as a spokesman and a federally legal status. Over the next decade, we are sure to see marijuana as a blazing hot topic not only medically and politically, but economically as well. Before we can begin to talk the politics of pot, (something I will avoid on this blog) we have to look at the clinical applications for which marijuana has been traditionally used.

Many civilizations around the globe have used marijuana in some medical application. These uses vary greatly, from the ancient Chinese use of marijuana to relieve menstrual symptoms, to the Afghani’s far fetched use of the drug to induce abortion. Marijuana was also recognized for its medicinal properties by other prominent ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks, and Medieval Arabs. While ancient medicine might make for a good basis to begin research of medical applications of marijuana, it should not, by any means, be used as proof of that application. Let me remind you that many of these ancient cultures also believed that bloodletting was a legitimate medical practice. Historical medicine can serve as a guide for finding novel approaches to the healing arts, but by no means should it be taken at face value.

To understand the therapeutic applications of medical marijuana, we have to understand the pharmacology of the drug. The active ingredient in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannibinol, known as THC both colloquially and among academic circles who tire of using the eleven syllable name. When absorbed by our bodies in one way or another, THC has several significant physiological effects, the primary of which – at least for recreational users of marijuana – is getting you high. Marijuana’s, or more specifically, THC’s effect on our bodies comes from the drug’s ability to mimic a class of neurotransmitters called endogenous cannabinoids.

In our brains we have chemical receptors, unimaginatively named CB1 receptors. These receptors are activated by our body’s own cannabinoids, particularly a compound called Anandamide. The CB1 receptors work to inhibit the function of some of our neurotransmitters by closing calcium channels and activating potassium channels, which probably means nothing to anyone who hasn’t studied physiology. Essentially, an active CB1 receptor puts the brakes on the neuron it is connected to, slowing or inhibiting its function. THC, itself a cannabinoid, affects the CB1 receptors in the same manner as chemicals produced naturally in our bodies, working to inhibit the function of certain neurons in our brain. The result (or side effect depending on your ultimate goal) is the feeling of being “high.”

While the majority of recreational marijuana users are trying to achieve the desired feeling of being “high,” for many people who use marijuana medically, being high is merely a side effect like the coffee jitters. You see, THC has other, non-cerebral physiological effects. Remember that our brain and central nervous system control not only our conscious thoughts and experiences, but our unconscious and reflexive functions as well. Introducing a superfluous amount of neurotransmitter, such as when we drink coffee or smoke marijuana, will have global effects on our bodies and change not only the way we think or feel, but the way our body functions. What I’m getting at is essentially the basis of why marijuana can be used in a medical sense, and is not only a recreational drug. Unfortunately many researchers and physicians face roadblocks when it comes to understanding the therapeutic applications of marijuana.

Lack of funding and resistance by many government agencies, namely the DEA, has created a void in understanding of marijuana’s effects on the human body. In 1972 marijuana was classified by the federal government as a class 1 drug, meaning that it had no medical purpose. This simply isn’t true. As recent studies have shown, marijuana can be used in a variety of clinical settings. Unfortunately these studies are few and far between because of the classification of this drug. Nevertheless, scientists and laypeople alike who are willing to approach this subject with an open minded attitude will find that the anecdotal evidence of marijuana’s medical uses can be backed up by some hard science. Unfortunately, the science to support the observed effects is still in its beginning stages, primarily because of the stigma and classification of marijuana. Thankfully, some adventurous state governments are challenging this notion, and working to further our understanding of the drug.

Focusing in on California, marijuana has been approved by Proposition 215 to be used as an alternative treatment for a variety of ailments. Currently, medical marijuana in California might be prescribed for AIDS, anorexia, arthritis, cachexia, cancer, chronic pain, glaucoma, migraine, multiple sclerosis, seizures, and severe nausea. This laundry list isn’t intended as a catch-all so any schmuck can legally smoke pot; these conditions have symptoms that marijuana has been documented and clinically proven to be effective at alleviating.

In my next blog, I will be looking at some of the specifics of how marijuana can help with a number of these conditions, as well as discuss some of the side effects and dangers of using marijuana as a therapeutic drug. Also I would like to state that I am no expert on marijuana, and most of the information I have on the subject comes from various textbooks, scientific journals, and internet sources. I say this for two reasons. First, I would enjoy if anyone more experienced in the subject would share their knowledge and expertise with me. (I will keep all personal information confidential as per HIPAA guidelines). Secondly, as I have mentioned before, all of this information is out there. If you have a question about medical marijuana, such as when it comes up on a state ballot, you don’t have to be a doctor to find out the truth of the matter – you simply need to get out there and do the research.

Chris Sprott is a contributor to Sacramento Men’s Health. His statements and opinions are not necessarily representative of Dr. Doug DeSalles or the Doctor’s Clinic For Men. His writings are intended to be entertaining (or at least educational) and should not be used as a substitute for advice from a licensed medical professional, because despite what he might have told you at a party or bar, Chris is not a doctor, doesn’t drive an Aston Martin and has never surgically removed a live rat from Charlie Sheen’s stomach.