The curious case of cannabis
This article originally appeared in The Tiger on April 25, 2014 | PRINT

Often worshipped as a cure-all, or else demonized as purely corrupting, the cannabis plant remains extremely polarizing in our society. In truth, cannabis can cause both good and bad effects in people. Even Dr. Dre, who affectionately named two musical masterpieces after cannabis, acknowledged “it’s known to give a brother brain damage.”

Mounting scientific evidence supports the medical benefits of cannabis for diseases such as cancer, HIV, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, amongst others. However, our outdated drug laws are stifling the medical community’s ability to transform cannabis into legitimate, life-saving medicine, and unless these laws are revised, many people will continue to suffer.

Currently, cannabis is a DEA Schedule I substance — the most dangerous category. For comparison, cocaine and methamphetamine are Schedule II substances. So are prescription pharmaceuticals, which claimed 22,000 lives in 2010, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, tobacco and alcohol are completely legal, even though the CDC determined that together they contribute to over a half-million deaths each year in our country.

To be classified as Schedule I, as cannabis is, a substance must have “no currently accepted medical use”. Strangely, the U.S. government holds a medical patent on cannabinoids — a specific group of compounds found in cannabis — as “neuroprotective antioxidants.” The FDA also approved two cannabinoid drugs, Marinol and Cesamet. A third cannabinoid drug, Epidiolex, is currently in FDA clinical trials for children suffering from extreme seizures.

Seven year-old Charlotte Figi used to be one of those suffering children, before being introduced to medical cannabis. As reported by CNN, Charlotte was constantly tormented by seizures for the first five years of her life, and none of the seven drugs proposed offered her any relief. Charlotte even tried an extreme diet, which helped marginally with the seizures, but had debilitating side effects of its own. Seemingly out of options, Charlotte’s mother purchased medical cannabis from a local Colorado dispensary.

Almost immediately, Charlotte’s condition improved. She went from having 300 seizures per week, to about 3 per month. By simply eating the medicine in her food — and avoiding the damage of smoking cannabis — Charlotte can finally lead a normal and happy life.

Her amazing story even converted Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, who recently praised the potential of medical cannabis in his article “Why I Changed My Mind on Weed.” To understand why Charlotte’s case was so successful, let’s look at the complexity of cannabis.

Currently, 85 cannabinoids have been identified, with both positive and negative effects. The two most well known cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). Whereas THC is psychoactive and causes the “high” associated with cannabis, CBD provides benefits without any psychotropic consequences.

The cannabis strain Charlotte uses — now nicknamed “Charlotte’s Web” — contains a high CBD content but a low THC content. This combination stops her seizures without any psychoactive effects and highlights the distinction between medical cannabis versus “getting stoned” recreationally.

Due to its Schedule 1 designation, however, medical cannabis research remains severely restricted. This limits our ability to tailor specific medicines to treat patients more effectively. Through research we discovered — and were able to educate the public on — many of the dangers of alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals, yet we have comparatively little data for cannabis.

By rescheduling cannabis, as Oregon has already done and as the California Medical Association has advocated, we will be able to improve the value of medical cannabis. This rescheduling would also allow us to develop appropriate regulations — like we have for alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals. These would include manufacturing and labeling standards to help prevent misuse. Importantly, this could be done without making cannabis legal for recreational usage.

Even though overwhelming evidence supports the benefits of medical cannabis and its removal from the Schedule I designation, the issue of legalizing cannabis for recreational usage, which is outside the scope of this article, requires many more considerations.

By addressing how both cannabis usage and its black market trade affect our communities and our country, we can properly evaluate the overall impact of the prevalence of cannabis. Then, and only then, will we be able to develop smart, sensible policies that maximize the benefit and minimize the harm to both individuals and society.

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