How Marijuana Treats Diseases: The Far Reach of the Endocannabinoid System

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Marijuana as medicine isn’t modern phenomenon. In fact, medical marijuana has been under scientific investigation for decades and has been used for millennia to treat a myriad of diseases and ailments. Fascinatingly, this one plant is capable of acting on many diverse systems in animal physiology. In the 6th addition of “Emerging Clinical Applications for Cannabis and Cannabinoids” Paul Armentano of NORML provides a comprehensive review of the various diseases in which cannabinoids have been studied.

The list is a long one, but all bear mentioning to help demonstrate the magnitude of marijuana’s medical potential: epilepsy, gliomas, alzheimers, fibromyalgia, dystonia, hepatitis C, pruritis, osteoporosis, MRSA, rheumatoid arthritis, incontinence, GI disorders, sleep apnea, hypertension, HIV, tourette’s syndrome, chronic pain, Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Huntington’s disease, and probably more.

The cover figure above shows the diversity of the organ and tissue types that cannabis can affect, from the brain to the bones, as well as the stomach, and the immune system. This is due to the far reach of the endocannabinoid system.

The endocannabinoid system is an endogenous system, which means it naturally occurs in an organism’s physiology. I use the term organism because the evolutionary history of the endocannabinoid system goes way back, all the way back to our common ancestors with the invertebrates hydra and mollusks. The endocannabinoid system was discovered as a result of scientists studying the effects of marijuana, and what they found is astonishing. In humans, the endocannabinoid system could be what our cells use for our tissues to communicate with one another and to help our bodies maintain homeostasis, or equilibrium.

The endocannabinoid system is made up of naturally occurring cannabinoids (AKA endocannabinoids) and the cannabinoid receptors CB1, CB2, among several others. The endocannabinoids represent small molecules equalling roughly the same size of the THC molecular structure; however, the structure lacks the cyclic parts and enables a more loose structure with more flexibility. These small molecules (small compared to their protein receptors) act as the signaling molecules, which cells can release in order to help regulate the cell function. The cell also produces enzymes that degrade the endocannabinoid signals, in order to turn the switch off. The receptors are a subset of a large family of cell signaling proteins known as 7-transmembrane G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). These proteins protrude through the cell membrane, with one side sticking out of a cell’s surface and the other within the cell. When various cannabinoids bind to the various receptors in various tissues in the body in various ratios, a diverse array of effects arise.

Remarkably, the cannabinoids produced by marijuana plants can interact with all of these parts of our bodies in a safe manner. In the review mentioned at the top (on pages 7-10) Dr. Gregory T. Carter describes the safety record for marijuana and concludes that cannabis is safer than most prescription and over the counter drugs. Remarkably, a person who consumes marijuana for one particular ailment does not experience any severe side effects with the other systems within his or her body. One exception may be the “stoned” psychological effect that can make one hazy and affect one’s memory.

However many enjoy the psychological effects, do not suffer much from memory impairment, and consider the psychological effects to be euphoric in some sense. Pages 11-16 give a more complete description of the endocannabinoid system, and Dr. Dustin Sulak mentions that research has shown the use of phytocannabinoids (plant- derived cannabinoids such as THC) help the body produce more endocannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors. Based on the results in the studies described by Paul Armentano on pages 22-69, this appears to always be a good thing.

The detailed descriptions of the clinical and preclinical data should be a guide to all patients in the unfortunate situation of self-medicating along with physicians currently unaware of the properties of phytocannabinoids (thanks to the propaganda campaigns against marijuana).

We truly hope that this guide will lead to more doctors feeling comfortable with giving cannabis a try. This information is especially important for those diseases that currently lack any acceptable treatments or cures, such as Huntington’s disease. I can publish this with a clear conscious because, despite the FDA’s lack of complete clinical trials, I am aware of the long historical record of the safety of marijuana. For those who doubt such a person who could recommend marijuana, please read pages 17-18, where Dr. Estelle Toby Goldstein, a former FDA clinical trials investigator, and highly credentialed MD psychopharmacologist, describes why she had to broaden her horizons beyond the accepted medical knowledge in order to save her own life.

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About Author

Anthony Burke earned simultaneous bachelor's degrees in chemistry and plant biology in 2004 from the College of Chemistry and College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley. He went on to earn his PhD in chemistry at UC Irvine in 2011, with a focus on natural product synthesis and tandem mass spectrometry for proteomics research. Postdoctoral research in organic nanomaterials was also completed at UC Irvine in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. He now works for Ghost Group as the Chief Scientific Officer.

1 Comment

  1. Mick/ Mike Vez on

    I AGREE WITH -Carl the problem they have pot in everything – & can weight for it to become excepted with this Bad press it is not goanna look good for the rest of US in the U.S
    Please don’t fuck it up for the rest of us Right Carl

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