Cannabis 101: What you Need to Know

To watch what is happening in Tallahassee and across the country on the issue of cannabis, you could almost believe we live in A Tale of Two Cities:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—”

Cannabis: Evil Weed or Nature’s Best Medicine?

The prior passage cliff-notes the cannabis (aka Marijuana, MMJ, pot, weed) discourse of late rather concisely. Cannabis produces both heat and true belief on both sides of the topic and we can easily relate to the “noisiest authorities” at this time in our history. Rather than engage in philosophy or the politics of power, let’s check out what some have said cannabis is really about in this country and in our bodies.

In 1988, DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge Francis Young wrote in United States Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration in The Matter Of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition (Docket No. 86-22) “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis, marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.” He continued his argument to say “It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record,” and concluded his opinion with “The administrative law judge recommends that the Administrator conclude that the marijuana plant considered as a whole has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, that there is no lack of accepted safety for use of it under medical supervision and that it may lawfully be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II [of the federal Controlled Substances Act].”

Eleven years later, in 1999, the US National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine said “Except for the harms associated with smoking, the adverse effects of marijuana are within the range of effects tolerated for other medications.”

It is a very sad and depressing statement to say Judge Young’s ruling has gone unheeded in this country for nearly 30 years while hundreds of thousands of people have gone to jail over this medicine at the hand of the very organization for whom it was ruled capricious. It is even sadder to realize the US National Academy of Science recognized cannabis as a safe medicine almost 20 years ago while Americans were denied this very medicine. This is especially so in light of the fact that during this same time frame, opioid deaths have been dramatically and consistently on the rise to the point that we have now reached a public health crisis status in our country. Furthermore, it is downright barbaric when you realize that we now know for certain that increased cannabis use in legal states directly correlates to a decrease in opioid use and death, whether or not the opioid is prescribed or illicit.

The excuse most commonly used for our obtuse behavior toward this plant is that cannabis is not an FDA approved substance and by its very schedule has “no medical value.” When you hear that, just remember St. John’s Wort, Melatonin and 95% of the products and oils you purchase at the Vitamin Shoppe or GNC have no FDA approval, even though science teaches us they help and physicians recommend their use. Placed within the same context, it would be just as arbitrary a thing for the FDA to make those items a “Schedule I” drug. I don’t know if you have ever mixed melatonin and valerian root, but that’s some serious “in da couch” stuff right there. Why are those accepted medications to use for sleep and calming effects while cannabis is not?

It is a foregone and settled conclusion that cannabis is an effective pain control. It isn’t worth arguing the palliative effects of the medication, but what you might not know is that they have learned cannabis can actually modulate disease processes in addition to lessening pain, depression and anxiety. That means in some cases, cannabis can actually stop the progression of disease or even begin to heal the damage to our body caused by illness. This magic is due to “cannabinoids:” what we now understand as the “conductor” or “maestro” of all our cells and systems.

Cannabis as Medicine

All vertebrate species have an endocannabinoid system (or endogenous cannabinoid system) that produce cannabinoids, whose job it is to keep total balance and communication between all the cells in your body. Scientists call that balance “homeostasis.” When we become out of balance because of injury or disease, we need those endocannabinoids to produce hot and heavy to our aid to bring us back whole again. It’s an amazing process as the cannabinoids are called to an area of injury, reduce swelling, calm pain signals, help communication between cells to increase white blood cells to fight infection and call platelets to stop bleeding all at the same time. One product of our body received in two different receptors that we know of (called CB1 and CB2) orchestrate all those actions on the injured area immediately. Our endocannabinoid system also is communicating with our brain to help keep us calm and more focused on our wellness. This system is how our nervous system and our immune system work in concert with our organs, glands and other systems. Your nervous system, organs and other systems are on the CB1 circuit and your immune system is on CB2. There is some belief that we also have a CB3, but that remains to be discovered.

Sometimes we cannot fill our system requirements without help. I think of it as a signal booster, the same as when we require vitamins to fill a deficiency, we need cannabinoids for our deficiency as well. Cannabis helps us by stimulating that system for us when we are too sick or injured to go it alone. It helps us heal faster because the cannabis plant (and other herbs like echinacea purpura) also have a cannabinoid system to keep itself in balance and healthy called the phytocannabinoid system. The cannabis plant’s cannabinoids fit our cannabinoid receptors and have been shown to help us boost production of our own cannabinoids.

The most famous of these cannabinoids is THC or Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol. The plant also has CBD or cannabidiol, CBN (cannabinol), CBG and others, as well as the acid forms of these products which do not have any psychoactive properties unless heated, but act the same within our bodies, each playing a different role. This is why it is so important to keep the plant as a “whole plant” as much as possible rather than pulling out the separate cannabinoids.

It is amazing when you understand that unlike pharmaceuticals, cannabis can treat us without extreme danger of organ damage or death from the medication. Regardless of the tales you have been taught, use of the cannabis plant is bereft of the horrible side effects we are accustomed to hearing listed on our television commercials. Cannabis typically doesn’t cause the very symptoms you are trying to fix. There is no lethal dose you can consume and you aren’t causing organ death through your consumption of the plant. You can kill yourself by eating too much salt at a sitting or drinking too much water even, but cannabis is unique in that it doesn’t work that way in our body.

Add Your Heading The Most Studied Unstudied Substance in The World

We constantly hear that cannabis doesn’t have enough study behind it, yet that statement could not be further from the truth. ClinicalTrials.gov currently shows 712 studies on cannabis worldwide. One can go on Pubmed (the government site that houses medical information) to look up common drugs prescribed to the populous. It gives a large share of the publications on a given topic as it relates to medicine.

I searched on the drug Ritalin, a common drug we readily prescribe to children and adults for hyperactivity. I found 1574 clinical studies and 8444 total articles on Ritalin. I then searched Cannabis (not including the terms marijuana or cannabinoids), and I found 794 clinical studies and 17403 total articles. Using the term marijuana, I yielded 1329 clinical studies and 26743 total articles.

Ritalin has one third the total literature as marijuana, yet we call marijuana an “unstudied” substance. If you add Adderall, another very common hyperactivity drug to that analysis, you see only 40 clinical studies and 207 total articles. Yet they want us to believe that cannabis is unstudied. They repeat that mantra over and over again as though it will make it true.

Another common argument against cannabis is the issue of dependence. If we are to look at simple dependence rates for substances the entire human race consumes, caffeine rates near the bottom at a 7% dependence rate. Cannabis sits just 2% above caffeine at 9%. Other substances are as follows:

Alcohol 15%
Tobacco 32%
Opioids 30+%

In short, cannabis is only 2% harder to stop taking than caffeine.

If we take just a quick overview of standard medications most readers have likely taken at some point in their lives, we can compare the “safest therapeutically active substance” to these frequently prescribed pharmaceuticals and immediately see which treatment choice carries more danger to our health.

Drug Common Names Side Effects
Acetaminophen Tylenol Liver damage, death
NSAIDS Advil, Motrin, and stronger prescriptions Kidney failure, ulcers, ED, heart attack, stroke, death
SSRI Antidepressants Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro Tremors, seizures, heart disease, suicidal thoughts, liver damage, death
Amphetamines, Dextroamphetamines Adderall Heart problems, psychosis, circulation problems, seizures, tics, vision changes, death
Methylphenidate Aptensio XR, Concerta, Ritalin, Cotempla XR-ODT, Metadate CD, Metadate ER, Methylin, QuilliChew, Quillivant XR Heart problems, psychosis, circulation problems, seizures, tics, vision changes, death
Benzodiazepines Xanax, Ativan, Valluim, Librium, Klonipin Amnesia, impaired motor coordination, seizures, reduced sexual desire, dependency, death
Opioids Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, Vicodin, Codeine, Percocet Depencdenc, suicidal thoughts, addiction, arrhythmia, death
Cannabis Marijuana, weed, pot, ganja Dry mouth, euphoria, dizziness, drowsiness, increased appetite

In spite of the listed side effects of these common pharmaceuticals many of us have, we are ok to run to an SSRI for depressions risking tremors, seizures, liver damage and death as a side effect, but we fear the euphoria caused by cannabis and call it “concerning.” It makes no sense other than it is how we have been trained to think and react. But when you really think about nature’s plant versus man’s concoction, it’s more shocking to realize we run first to an opioid for severe and chronic pain risking true addiction, rather than giving nature a shot at the pain first. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years as a medicine. It’s only the last 80 that it was labeled a devil’s weed.

Cannabis is known to elevate mood, lift depression, decrease inflammation, relax muscles, and reduce pain and anxiety with little to no danger to the body because it enhances our own production of cannabinoids. In essence, we are bringing a conductor to the party rather than the sledgehammer that are most pharmaceuticals. It is a wonder medicine simply because it works synergistically with our own body’s processes to aid us in healing ourselves and it does so without creating other damage or disease in the process.

It stands to reason that we should try cannabis first, then if we need stronger medications, dare to go down the pharmaceutical path. However, if you are doing it in the reverse as most patients currently are (given the newness of legalization), it is important to remember that cannabis is a medication we can use to lower or remove our dependence on pharmaceuticals, increase our health and vitality while remaining calm and positive enough that our body can do what it needs to heal on its own. Just do yourself a favor and be honest with your physician if your goal is to reduce harmful medications, as in some very few instances cannabis may raise serum levels of drugs currently in your system. This is a really good thing if your goal is to reduce your pharmaceutical load, but it does require a doctor’s assistance to ensure you are doing so properly.

In closing, unlearning an idea is much harder than learning it in the first place. It explains the “Two Cities” or camps that we currently face politically. My advice is to be patient, ever studious, carry on and don’t be afraid to open your mind to unlearning a few things in order to learn a new way. Then share your knowledge with others. Happy healing!

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