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A Medical Marijuana Primer Part 2: An Amazing Discovery

Written by Jeff Drake
7 · 14 · 17

Part 2: An Amazing Discovery!

Cannabis has been in wide use around the globe for thousands of years and throughout history people using cannabis have reported on its beneficial health effects on an incredibly wide range of medical conditions. In fact, cannabis is reported to positively effect so many different things in our bodies, that some are tempted to call cannabis a potential panacea, a cure for all things. Let me be quite clear right now that cannabis is NOT a panacea! There is no such thing.

Still, with so much history of use and literally centuries of continued reports on the medical benefits of cannabis, it was just a matter of time before modern science finally took a stab at answering some basic questions about cannabis, for example: Does cannabis offer real health benefits? If so, what is it in cannabis that causes beneficial health effects? What happens to our bodies when we consume cannabis? How is it that cannabis alters our consciousness? How is it that one plant can affect so many different parts of our bodies? All good questions – and I’m going to attempt to present some answers that may surprise you.

An Amazing Discovery!

1963 is the year Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli organic chemist, discovered the psychoactive chemical compound within cannabis that makes people high – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Later, he and his team would make additional discoveries about the chemistry of cannabis, one of which is a chemical component called, “cannabidiol”[1], most commonly referred to as “CBD”, which I will discuss elsewhere in this series. These cannabis chemicals are called “cannabinoids” (there are about 400 compounds and 100 different cannabinoids discovered so far), of which THC and CBD are considered to be the primary cannabinoids. (For later use, remember that THC and CBD are both cannabinoids.)

Today, Mechoulam, a professor of medicinal chemistry at the Hebrew University in Israel, is often called the “Grandfather of Medical Marijuana”, for good reason as we shall see. It is also not surprising that the discoveries surrounding cannabis were made in Israel. After all, according to Israel’s “Anti-drug Authority”, Israel has the highest ratio of marijuana users in the world – 27% of the population aged 18-65 have admitted to using marijuana in the past year! Iceland and the United States are in second place, with just 18% and 16% usage, respectively.[2]

Menoucham

I have to admit that two things about the discovery of THC make me smile – first, that the discovery happened in the 1960’s. This just seems so appropriate, if you know what I mean? Second, that the discovery was made by an organic chemist, a member of the scientific field that studies organic molecules – because when you get right down to it, the relationship between humans and cannabis is so immediate and so intimate, that it must be, at its core, a chemical relationship. Thus, who better to uncover the secrets of the human-cannabis relationship, than an organic chemist?

Someday I would like to ask Professor Menoucham what was going through his head that day in 1963 when he went to pick up 11 pounds of Lebanese hash from a friend of his at the local police station, who had just confiscated it from someone. Did he have any inkling that this would lead to one of the most important biological discoveries in history? And no, I’m not referring to the discoveries of the cannabinoids THC and CBD, but rather his (and his team’s) later discovery in 1992, as to the actual physical reason humans get high from cannabis.[3]

Imagine Dr. Menoucham and his team puzzling for hours, days, weeks, over how it is that a cannabis plant can affect humans the way it does? I would have loved to have been able to sit in on some of their discussions as they brain-stormed the problem!

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time that scientists whose only purpose was to analyze a species of plant found themselves essentially compelled by the results of their research to change their focus and look inside the human body for answers to their questions; I am referring to cocaine, of course! In fact, the German pharmaceutical company, Merck, began producing coca in the 1860’s and by the 1880’s, medical uses for cocaine were being discovered and used![4]

Like previous cocaine studies of the past, as a result of studying the chemical makeup of the plant (coca in one case, cannabis another), scientists would be forced to ask new questions, undergo new research and come up with new theories as to why the chemicals produced by the cannabis plant are so easily assimilated by our bodies.

One such theory was that if the cannabis plant is producing cannabinoids which cause a consumer of the plant to experience the effects so quickly, there must be some physical mechanism(s) within our bodies for receiving the cannabinoids. And sure enough, further research uncovered that such receptors existed! The first receptor, CB1, was found in the brains of rats. And yeah, we’ve got CB1 receptors in our brains, too!

But this discovery begged another question (science, you gotta love it!) – why would our bodies have ANY receptors for THC and CBD? Which, of course, led to another theory i.e., Maybe the reason we have THC and CBD receptors is because our bodies are producing these chemicals all by themselves! You can, no doubt, see the writing on the wall at this point, because further research did in fact, discover that our bodies are producing their own cannabidiols.

You see, what Menoucham and his team discovered was not just that the chemical compounds in cannabis, referred to as “cannabinoids”, existed in the plant, but more importantly, that these very same chemical cannabinoids are also formed inside our brain and other places inside our bodies! As stated by Menoucham, “It turned out that the cannabinoids in the plant actually mimic the compounds that we form in our brain.”

This revelation then generated more research, which led Menoucham and his team to discover a heretofore completely unknown and rather elaborate biological system inside our bodies, one that is incredibly crucial to our health – the “endocannabinoid system (ECS)”[5].

For brevity’s sake, I will stop here and get into some of the more interesting details of the endocannabinoid system in the next post, which will have to wait until I am back from Europe in a month.

In the meantime, you may be wondering why you haven’t heard more about the endocannabinoid system, given that it is being hailed by the medical world as an astounding discovery. Good question. I think you may have an inkling as to the answer.

[1] “Cannabidiol” is pronounced “kan-ə-bə-ˈdī-ˌȯl, with a long “I”.

[2] Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

[3] Note: Yes, the “Reefer Madness Days” and “The War on Drugs” both contributed significantly to postponing any serious scientific research on the subject and, if we’re being honest, they still are affecting research! There are currently 23 medical marijuana research project proposals sitting on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ desk in Washington and the DOJ is going to just let them languish. It’s frustrating! I’d feel more despondent, however, if it weren’t for the fact that both the medical marijuana and legalization trains have left the station and although the Trump administration may slow them down, their progress will continue! [Jeff]

[4] Pharmaceutical Use of Cocaine”, Narconon: http://www.narconon.org/drug-information/cocaine-circa-1860-1900.html.

[5] “Endo” is a prefix that denotes something internal, in this case, within our bodies. Thus, “cannabinoid” refers to the chemical compounds of the cannabis plant, while “endocannabinoid” refers to the cannabinoids produced internally by our bodies. Same chemical compound, different sources.

 

 

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.