An Introduction to Cannabis

medical-cannabis-for-beginnersWhen we received some questions about “Is Cannabis Effective Against Cancer” we thought it would be a relatively easy research piece. That was in March of this year and about 700 hours of interviews, reading, and watching video has transpired. Our findings have taken us down many paths, many times finding contradictory and often confusing information. The history of the cannabis plant is filled with ancient information, folklore, religion, politics, prejudice, hopes, fears, and mis-information. Luckily, there is also many respected experts, historians, researchers, legal, and medical professionals to guide our explorations.

It is important to understand a brief history of this plant, why it is a Schedule 1 narcotic in the United States, and the implications of that scheduling. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years as a source of fiber, nutrition, medicine, and sacred ritual. There are distinctions in what is considered hemp and medical marijuana, although they are both from the parent plant, cannabis. Traditionally, hemp is considered the plant that provides seeds, fiber, juice, and other non-psychoactive uses. Hemp has a negligible THC content. THC is the psychoactive component of the plant and provides the recreational aspects of the plant.

Hemp seeds are a rich source of amino acids, protein, dietary minerals, and fiber. You will find hemp milk and protein bars in food markets. The oils are rich in essential fatty acids and are contained in hair products, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and other products. The fiber, derived from commercial hemp, is made into fabrics, paper, and building materials.

The United States used to grow hemp commercially in the South where it was used in WWII to produce uniforms, rope, and canvas. Today, most of the world’s production of hemp comes from France, while China ranks second in production. Great Britain and Germany resumed commercial production in the 1990s. The retail value of hemp imported by the United States was $581 Million in 2013.

Legal History

So why was cannabis, in any form, banned and classified as a schedule 1 narcotic? There is a lot of historic documentation, but briefly:

During hearings on marijuana law in the 1930s, claims were made about marijuana’s ability to cause men of color to become violent and solicit sex from white women. This imagery became the backdrop for the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which effectively banned its use and sales.

While the Act was ruled unconstitutional years later, it was replaced with the Controlled Substances Act in the 1970s, which established schedules for ranking substances according to their dangerousness and potential for addiction. Cannabis was placed in the most restrictive category, Schedule I, supposedly as a place holder while then President Nixon commissioned a report to give a final recommendation.

The Schafer Commission, as it was called, declared that marijuana should not be in Schedule I and even doubted its designation as an illicit substance. However, Nixon discounted the recommendations of the commission, and marijuana remains a Schedule I substance.

Then, in 1964, at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam – along with his colleagues, Dr. Yehiel Gaoni and Dr. Haviv Edery – succeeded in the very first isolation and elucidation of the active constituent of cannabis, D9-tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC. They have since discovered and isolated other cannabinoids, such as CBD (cannabidiol).

What was to be a 6-month research project has turned into a life long study by Dr. Mechoulam. Also discovered were the cannabinoid receptors in the body. These receptors are present due to the the fact that our bodies activate these receptors internally-in this case with a substance called anandamide. Also known as N-arachidonoylethanolamine or AEA, anandamide is a naturally occurring cannabinoid produced in the human body for use as a neurotransmitter.

The Endocannabinoid System

Currently, thousands of chemists, molecular biologists, doctors and other researchers have been discovering the roles of the components of cannabis and the body systems that can use them. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a group of endogenous cannabinoid receptors located in the brain, and throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, consisting of neuromodulatory lipids and their receptors.

Advanced research outside the United States has led to patented medicines, such as Sativex from GW Pharmaceuticals, in England, which is approved for the treatment of spasticity due to multiple sclerosis (MS) and currently is in phase 3 trials for cancer pain. Most of the high level research is happening outside America for a number of reasons that point back to listing it as a Schedule 1 narcotic. As such, cannabis for research in the US must come from strains approved by the DEA, and grown by one facility at the University of Mississippi.

As a result of the criminalization of cannabis in the United States, growing cannabis went underground, with most of it focused on producing high THC strains by the illegal market. Only recently, strains with high CBD or balanced CBD to THC ratios have been developed. Many independent growers, doctors and researchers are using these strains due to the quality and components contained, but not found in the limited and restrictive federally approved strains. This research is being conducted in states where medical and recreational use is approved.

Conventional pharmaceutical companies in the United States have a very limited interest in this research. There is difficulty in producing a synthetic derivative of cannabis and hence it may not be commercially feasible for these companies to patent such a drug. Cannabis medicine seems to be more of a ‘whole plant’ medicine. Dr. Mechoulam and others have described the “Entourage Effect” by which many, possibly thousands of cannabis chemicals work better together on the ECS, as opposed to individual compounds.

Future articles will focus more deeply on:

  • Scientific discoveries, chemical components and the endocannabinoid system.
  • Research over the past 50 years, past, present and possible futures.
  • Current use inside and outside the medical system. Why, how, facts and myths.
  • Current legal status and the implications.


References & Further Reading

Is Marijuana Medicine? From the NIH

Details on State Regulations

What is THC? From LiveScience

Hemp: A New Crop with New Uses for North America

Documentary on Dr. Mechoulam’s research


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