Cannabis research as a science has been largely suppressed for the past 80 years, despite the historical and growing evidence of the effectiveness of various cannabis compounds for therapeutic use. Recent efforts by various grassroots organizations and the medical establishment have thrust cannabis into the spotlight, scientifically, medically, and politically.
Research into the function of the over 500 unique compounds in cannabis has been limited by federal and state restrictions. Perhaps the most significant of these is the federal labeling of marijuana as a ‘Schedule 1 Drug’, thereby limiting its availability for research laboratory use without DEA clearance. This is despite the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) having been issued a patent entitled, “Cannabinoids as neuroprotectants”.
Furthermore, the National Institute on Drug Abuse currently lists among its mandates “Potential therapeutic uses of THC and other cannabinoids in treatment of pain, mental illness, and HIV”. Regardless of these limitations, scientific efforts have elucidated valuable information regarding certain cannabis compounds, including some of the over 80 cannabinoids and 140 terpenes, and their characteristics.
Cannabinoids target the body’s endocannabinoid system, which plays a significant role in brain development and function. Researchers have become increasingly interested in the system, specifically cannabinoid receptor targeting, in modulating a range of processes from mood and anxiety to neuromuscular and immune function.
In addition, regulation of the endocannabinoid system has been implicated in a number of diseases of significant scope, including: Cancer, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Multiple Sclerosis, Atherosclerosis, Myocardial Infarction, Hypertension, Glaucoma, Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome, and Osteoporosis, among others.
Although tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive component in marijuana, has largely been the focus of both medicinal and recreational investigations, many other non-psychoactive cannabinoids appear to have medicinal value distinct, and in some cases wider ranging, then THC.
As most of the research to date on the therapeutic value of cannabis compounds has been limited in scale, there is a growing trend towards large scale clinical studies to stratify medical relevance. A 2017 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine includes an assessment of the current state of evidence and future recommendations for research on cannabis and cannabinoids.
It has become clear that not only is access to these compounds important for potential medical use, but the optimization of methods to extract and purify these components is critical – particularly for the development of treatments with minimal toxicity. Moreover, drugs in the US require definitive, large scale, well-controlled clinical trials prior to federal approval for legal medical use. As the industry grows and continues to mature, superior analytical methods and clinical standardization will undoubtedly be very closely linked.