Medical and recreational marijuana continues to be a controversial and highly charged subject, although many states, as well as a few countries, have now made marijuana legal for medical use, and recreational use.
Recent studies on marijuana and its compounds show a variety of therapeutic and medical uses. Marijuana, or cannabis, as it is officially called, contains somewhere around one to four hundred compounds called ‘cannabinoids’. Cannabinoids are one of a class of naturally occurring chemical compounds in marijuana that affect the neurotransmitters in the brain. One of the most well-known cannabinoids in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, as it is commonly known, which is the primary substance in marijuana that creates the ‘high’. Cannabidiol or CBD is another active compound of both marijuana and hemp, which does not affect the brain or get you ‘high’ but is known for its many other health benefits.
Cannabis has two primary strains or species: Cannabis Sativa and Indica. Both strains contain the active ingredients, CBD and THC, and both varieties are used for therapeutic treatments—although they differ significantly in chemical composition and their medical applications.
Sativa strains produce more of an alert, euphoric high, are neuro-protective, anti-depressant, anti-convulsant, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory; while the Indica variety helps to relax muscles, relieve pain, stimulate the appetite, and help with sleep. Many different varieties of hybrid combinations of Sativa and Indica also exist with differing levels of both CBD and THC as well as other active compounds.
The numerous cannabinoids in cannabis create various effects in the body. In the 1990’s a well-known Israeli scientist, Dr. Ralph Mechaoulam, discovered a system within our own bodies that contains receptors for the compounds in cannabis. This system was named the “Ednocannabinoid System”. This EC system actually contains receptors that connect with CBD, THC and at least two other related substances in cannabis.
Interestingly enough, our bodies have these cannabinoid receptors in the brain, lungs, kidneys, immune system and other parts of the body that link up with the cannabinoids in marijuana when it is ingested, inhaled or applied. This is why therapeutic use of marijuana has very specific effects on different parts of the body.
Marijuana has actually been in use medicinally for thousands of years, but in our recent history it has been against the law—until just a few years ago when many states began to allow its medicinal use—and some states now allow both medical and recreational use. CBD oil however, does not get a person ‘high’, and so has come to light recently as a major therapeutic agent for serious diseases and chronic health issues. It is important to note, that the CBD compound when isolated, does not contain any of the psychoactive compounds, and is more readily available from physicians and more likely to be legal in many areas.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has classified cannabis (mostly because of the THC content) as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. Schedule 1 drugs are the highest level of controlled substances and include heroin, LSD, and cocaine. Schedule 1 drugs are classified as illegal because they have high abuse potential, no medical use, severe safety concerns, and are highly addictive. It seems odd that marijuana is included in this category of drugs, because not only does it not fit the Schedule 1 parameters, but it is considered legal in many states and some countries as a medicinal and therapeutic drug.
This classification makes it rather difficult to study cannabis for all of its incredible health effects. In spite of the difficulties, many studies have been conducted, and both CBD and THC have a wide range of physical and mental health applications, but CBD is used more frequently for health applications because of the fact that it does not contain psychoactive compounds and is more accessible to the general public.
According to a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, CBD benefits include anti-inflammatory, anticonvulsant, antioxidant, anti-nausea, anti-anxiety, and even antipsychotic. It has been used very effectively to treat cancer, nerve inflammation and pain (peripheral neuropathy), epilepsy, nausea and vomiting, anxiety, schizophrenia and more.
Let’s look at some of the ways that CBD works as a non-pharmacological therapeutic agent.
Relieves Pain and Inflammation
CBD works as well or better than opioids in relieving pain by inhibiting the nerve transmission in the pain signaling pathways, without the tolerance or addiction of an opioid drug. CBD oil is often used by people who have chronic pain. While it works to reduce pain, it also reduces inflammation (often a big part of pain), and overall discomfort that is related to many health conditions.
Studies conducted on CBD and pain management offer great promise, especially as a substitute for medications that may be addictive, harmful to the liver, or have other unwanted side effects. With the current opioid addiction problem the United States and other countries are experiencing, it seems a safe and viable alternative for pain management.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine found that CBD significantly suppressed chronic inflammatory and nerve pain in rodents without causing any tolerance to the treatment. Another review of multiple studies showed that a combination of CBD and THC was found very effective in treating the pain associated with Multiple Sclerosis, which is often very debilitating in 50-70% of patients.
CBC has also shown a lot of promise for those with pain and inflammation due to arthritis as well. This 2016 study looked at application of a CBD gel to inflamed areas and found reduced pain and inflammation in the affected joints—with no side effects.
Cannabinoids vs. Opioids
A huge benefit of cannabis is the fact that there’s no risk of addiction, overdose or death. In fact, research shows a 20% decline in opioid overdose deaths in states that have legalized medical marijuana, suggesting legalizing medical marijuana nationwide could save up to 10,000 lives a year. Much evidence exists that suggests that cannabis is helpful for those already struggling with opioid addition, helping to ease withdrawal symptoms, and reduce pain. In this survey, 65% of older patients using cannabis for pain treatment were able to decrease or stop using opioid medications altogether.
One of the participants in the survey wrote, “My quality of life has increased considerably since starting medical marijuana. I was on opiates for 15 years, and after six months on marijuana, [I’m] off both completely.”
Well-known physician Dr. Sanjay Gupta recently urged U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to change his stance on cannabis in order to slow down the opioid epidemic. Says Gupta,
“Not only can cannabis work for a variety of conditions such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and pain, sometimes, it is the only thing that works … It is time for safe and regulated medical marijuana to be made available nationally. Perhaps most important, the compounds found in cannabis can heal the diseased addict’s brain, helping them break the cycle of addiction. There is no other known substance that can accomplish all this. If we had to … design a medicine to help lead us out of the opioid epidemic, it would likely look very much like cannabis.”
CBD and THC Fight Cancer and Manage Pain
One of the promising areas for CBD oil has been for the treatment of cancer. Doctors working with medical cannabis have used it for cancer treatment side effects, such as nausea, loss of appetite, pain management, and to ease anxiety. And, National Cancer Institute (NCI) has pointed to CBD as a promising possibility for relieving the negative side effects caused by chemotherapy.
Cannabis has been used for many, many years to suppress nausea and vomiting that may come as a reaction to certain chemotherapy drugs. Research has shown that among the many cannabinoid compounds found in marijuana, both the intoxicating THC and the non-intoxicating CBD compounds help to diminish or prevent nausea and vomiting. This 2012 study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology shows these CBD benefits for preventing nausea and vomiting.
More importantly, new evidence now shows that both CBD and THC have some powerful cancer fighting effects as well, with many studies showing its ability to fight brain cancer, breast, prostate, ovarian, lung, thyroid, stomach, colon cancer, leukemia, and melanoma.
Cannabis’s ability to fight cancer is related to two different mechanisms: it’s ability to stop cancer growth by triggering the death of cancer cells (while leaving healthy cells untouched), and its ability to cut off the blood supply and nutrients to cancer cells.
“… while the available data are limited, research that has been conducted around antitumor effects of cannabinoids so far shows great promise. The International Journal of Oncology published a study last year, for example, indicating that cannabinoids successfully kill cancer cells, and the benefits increase when combined with chemotherapy.
An early preclinical study we recently conducted also found that cancer cells derived from patient blood samples were differentially sensitive to the two main active compounds in cannabis — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA).
A number of other laboratory and animal studies have been conducted in recent years on colon, breast and brain cancers. They indicate that cannabinoids may inhibit tumor growth by blocking cell growth, causing cell death and blocking the development of blood vessels that tumors require to grow.”
CBD and THC Boost Cancer Drugs Effectiveness
According to the International Journal of Oncology study, cannabinoids possess some powerful anticancer ability when used alone, but actually are even stronger when paired with certain cancer drugs. The best results were obtained when the cannabinoids were paired with the chemotherapy drugs, cytarabine and vincristine.
“Results show a number of cannabinoids could be paired together to generate an effect superior to that achieved if the components were used individually,” the researchers write, noting that CBD and THC together appeared to be more effective than together. When cannabinoids were administered after chemotherapy, it induced greater cancer cell death. When administered before chemotherapy, cell death did not occur as well.
Other research shows that CBD from hemp is powerful against ovarian cancer. Hemp and marijuana come from the same family of plants, but marijuana contains THC (the psychoactive component), while hemp contains primarily CBD, but not THC.
CBD Protects the Brain, Reduces Epileptic Seizures, Helps Ease Anxiety, and is Antipsychotic
Cannabis has actually been used for several decades for some seizure disorders. In fact, in 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its policy towards marijuana, acknowledging that the cannabinoid compounds, “…may currently be an option for … children with life-limiting or severely debilitating conditions and for whom current therapies are inadequate.”
CBD has been shown to be effective for epileptic seizures, without some of the negative side effects of epilepsy drugs used to control seizures. In one study, children with medication-resistant epilepsy had a 54% reduction in seizures after 3 months on a 98% CBD oil. Another study showed that 84% of the children with epilepsy reported a reduction in seizures while taking the CBD oil. Other benefits included increased alertness (some seizure medications can cause severe drowsiness), better moods, and even improved sleep patterns.
CBD oil also has a pharmacological profile similar to some antipsychotic drugs and is effective in treating schizophrenia, with few to no side effects. Other studies show cannabis can help to relieve depression, anxiety and stress. In one study, self-reported symptoms of depression decreased by 58%, and 94% reported less anxiety and stress symptoms. Cannabis is also effective at treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some researchers have suggested that cannabis may also be effective for panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other anxiety-related disorders.
Helps Prevent Diabetes and Heart Disease
CBD has also been found beneficial at preventing diabetes. In a 2006 study on mice, it was found that CBD treatment reduced the incidence of diabetes from 86% in the non-treated group, to 30% in the CBD-treated group. It is thought that one of the reasons for this is that CBD reduces the inflammation that goes with diabetes, and it also aids the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin.
In 2013, the American Journal of Medicine published a study that looked at the benefits of marijuana use on glucose, insulin and insulin resistance among U.S. adults. The researchers found that current marijuana use was associated with 16 % lower fasting insulin levels. They also found significant associations between marijuana use and smaller waist circumferences, a factor that is tied to both diabetes and heart disease. And yes, this certainly seems to negate what us as laypersons think about marijuana’s effect on getting the “munchies” and weight gain!
Higher than normal blood sugar can also cause damage to the blood vessels, leading to heart disease. However, a study done in 2013 and published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, reports that CBD can protect against the damage caused by high blood glucose, reducing inflammation in the blood vessels, thereby reducing the incidence of heart disease along with diabetes.
Where Can I Get Cannabis Legally?
As of June, 2018, thirty states now allow medical marijuana to be sold, although the methods in each state and the laws may differ slightly. Nine states allow both medical marijuana and recreational sales. This website contains some of the information on state sales and regulations for the purchase of marijuana.
Cannabis can be used for health benefits via the following ways:
- Inhaled—This method generally has a very quick effect, as the cannabis is inhaled into lungs and absorbed through the capillaries where it quickly enters the bloodstream. The effects of inhaled cannabis last about four hours.
- Vaporization— Like a nebulizer treatment, cannabis can be heated to a temperature that will release the medication in vapors to be inhaled by the patient.
- Absorbed through the mouth or tongue–Made possible using oils or tinctures, it is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and provides a rapid effect. Highly recommended for non-smoking patients.
- Oral ingestion—Cannabis is also available through pills or other edible cannabis products in the form of gummies, candies, or brownies. The important thing to remember is because cannabinoids are fat-soluble, there may be issues when it comes to absorption depending on the patient’s metabolism. The best solution for this is cannabis butter, which is more easily absorbed.
- Topical application–Cannabis can be also applied as an ointment, lotion, or gel to treat skin inflammations, arthritis, and muscle pain.
What About CBD—Is It Legal?
CBD is more readily available in many states; however, the legality of CBD can vary greatly from state to state. CBD was recently ruled to be illegal—whether it is derived from hemp or cannabis—in states where marijuana is illegal. CBD’s legality was actually just clarified in court (May, 2018) to be a schedule 1 drug—no matter how illogical it sounds—including the CBD made from hemp plants, which contains no THC. Unfortunately, the laws surrounding CBD are a somewhat murky and messy patchwork that leave citizens without crystal-clear answers or protections. Some states have limited-access laws to protect citizens who use high-CBD/low-THC extracts to treat conditions such as epilepsy, while others have none at all.
Bottom line: Cannabis is legal for medical purposes in 30 U.S. states, which means CBD should be also be legal in those states. In nine states, marijuana is legal for both medical and recreational purposes, so CBD should be readily available in those states. Stay tuned as these laws and regulation regarding the use of medical CBD seem to be in flux.
CBD is very safe to use and has little side effects—especially when compared side by side to pharmaceutical medications. Synthetic versions of cannabinoids are also available for therapeutic use as well, but beware, because these are concentrated, they may have some side effects.
While more studies need to be conducted, CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids appear to be highly effective for many health issues and are definitely worth considering. Ask your physician or natural health provider for more information on products specific to your health needs.
Research relating to the use of cannabis can also be found on cancer.gov (the U.S. government’s site on cancer). Enter “cannabis” into the search bar. You can also search the medical literature through PubMed, which is a public resource (again, simply enter “cannabis” or related terms into the search bar).