Cannabis: Legal, Hiding, and Recent Research
Legal: In Siberia, charred seeds have been found inside burial mounds dating back to 3000 B.C. The Chinese were using cannabis as a medicine thousands of years ago. Marijuana is deeply American too—as American as George Washington, who grew hemp at Mount Vernon. For most of the country’s history, cannabis was legal, commonly found in tinctures and extracts.
Hiding: For nearly 70 years the plant went into hiding, and medical research largely stopped. In 1970 the federal government made it even harder to study marijuana, classifying it as a Schedule I drug. In America most people expanding knowledge about cannabis were by definition criminals.
Research: But now, as more and more people are turning to cannabis to treat ailments, the science of cannabis is experiencing a rebirth. We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant. Although marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug, Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, recently expressed interest in what science will learn about marijuana, noting that preliminary data show that “for certain medical conditions and symptoms” it can be “helpful.”
For many, cannabis has become a tonic to dull pain, aid sleep, stimulate appetite, buffer life’s thumps and shocks. Pot’s champions say it peels back layers of stress. It’s also thought to be useful as, among other things, an analgesic, an antiemetic, a bronchodilator, and an anti-inflammatory. It’s even been found to help cure a bad case of the hiccups. Compounds in the plant, some scientists contend, may help the body regulate vital functions—such as protecting the brain against trauma, boosting the immune system, and aiding in “memory extinction” after catastrophic events(National Geographic, June 2015).
If you take pure, isolated delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana—you’ll experience “a high that has no specific character, so that seems boring,” says Mowgli Holmes, a geneticist and founder of a cannabis genetics company Phylos Bioscience. What gives cannabis “character,” in Holmes’s view, are the hundreds of other chemicals it contains. These include THC’s cousin cannabinoids such as cannabidiol, along with other compounds called terpenes and flavonoids. Whereas terpenes are generally credited with giving pot its varied fragrances—limonene, for example, imparts a snappy, citrusy perfume—the cannabis industry and some researchers have espoused the controversial idea that such compounds can enhance or alter THC’s psychoactive and medicinal properties.
This so-called “entourage effect” refers to this scrum of compounds supposedly working in concert to create what Chris Emerson describes as “the sum of all the parts that leads to the magic or power of cannabis.” Emerson is a trained chemist and the co-founder of a designer marijuana vaporizer products company called Level Blends. Product designers like him believe they can create THC vaping mixtures tuned with different concentrations of each terpene and cannabinoid for specialized effects.
The conventional science on this topic is scant. But cannabis breeders (often working illegally in the past) have long been crossing plants to develop distinctive strains that purportedly do different things, and breeders are using genetics to make that process more precise and efficient. “We have a huge set of cannabis genomic data that will, hopefully, allow us to ID genetic markers associated with chemical results and certain patient outcomes,” Holmes says. “We’re just getting started.” Holmes hopes breeders might eventually be able to generate cannabis plants or products that are personalized to each individual patient or recreational user’s needs (CMCR University of California, San Diego, 2017.).
The purpose of the UCSD's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research is to coordinate rigorous scientific studies to assess the safety and efficacy of cannabis and cannabis compounds for treating medical conditions.