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One of the more talked about issues in science and scientific news over the last few years has been the use of marijuana, or cannabis, in a medical context. This is a question that most often in the mainstream media spills over into political science – namely whether politicians and policy makers consider the use of marijuana to be an acceptable behaviour in their version of society no matter what the intent.
This paper is designed to shine light on some of the more scientific sides of the debate, and it is a debate. Many are unsure of whether or not the benefits of marijuana as a long-term solution for many diseases, with cancer existing at the core of the debate.
Cancer is one of the most debated, discussed and reported on diseases of all-time, and many have suggested that we may be in the midst of a cancer epidemic, in a historical context. This is countered by many who suggest the number of cancer cases per capita is only rising due to the fact that human beings are generally living longer, and thus have more chance of surviving long enough to contract a cancer.
Current medicinal uses for cannabis
At present, there are 2 main cannabis-derived medications available on the market. The first one is tetrahydrocannibanol, or THC. THC is the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis, meaning that this chemical is the one that reacts with the human body to create what we perceive as the “high” from cannabis use (Gallanter et al, 1972). The reason this chemical exists is to protect the cannabis plant from predation, which means that it has a number of useful modification features that have become prominent in the medical field (Fetterman et al, 1971).
One of the main diseases that is combated by THC with some level of success is multiple sclerosis syndrome, which was highlighted as a minor success in a comprehensive review by the American Academy of Neurology (Koppell et al, 2014). In particular, it was found to be a particularly effective treatment against the central pain symptoms associated with the disease. They also found that is was possibly effective against spasticity symptoms (i.e. stiffness, tightening of the muscles), but found that THC showed no evidence of assisting with bladder dysfunction caused by the disease. Unfortunately the review found less evidence for other neurological diseases. Huntington disease, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease were found to be ineffectively treated by THC, while the literature had thus far provided insufficient data to claim effectiveness either way with other diseases including Tourette’s syndrome, cervical dystonia and epilepsy.
Outside of neurological purposes, cannabis has resulted in a number of different uses, particularly in reducing symptoms. THC has two main principles – increasing appetite, and decreasing nausea. These traits are also often contained amongst the “high” that it causes in recreational users. For medical terms, this makes it extremely useful for sufferers of AIDS, and cancer patients currently undergoing chemotherapy (Josefson 2001). Studies are also underway showing the drugs use in helping with spinal injury pain, and effects on post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers (Vikovic 2010).
The other major compound used medicinally at this moment is cannabidiol, or CBD. CBD has a number of different functions that could make it a useful chemical within the medical fields, although like THC the availability of it is restricted due to drug laws currently existing around the world.
CBD is a powerful antimicrobial agent, meaning that bacteria and other microscopic organisms are killed off by the presence of the chemical. An untested hypothesis suggests that this property should lead to CBD being highly effective in the role of an acne treatment, as it would fight the sebum production which is at the root of this medical problem (Russo, 2011).
In neurological medicine, CBD often reacts in many of the same ways as THC listed above. There are, however, some minor differences due to the methods by which CBD react with receptors within the brain cells. These differences are mostly positive from the point of view of CBD, with the chemical found to be less likely to result in short-term memory loss when administered medicinally than THC in the same situation. So, in this area, CBD currently leads as the safest option for medicinal purposes (Morgan et al, 2010).
When administered as an illicit drug, CBD has been found to counteract the psychotropic effects of THC in some individuals, in particular those with latent schizophrenia (Deiana, 2013). This leads directly on to a possible medicinal application, with some proponents claiming that CBD is a safe alternative treatment for schizophrenia sufferers. Clinical trials have in some instances proven useful, with the CBD having been shown to repair disrupted neural pathways within the brain, making it a chemical of interest to mental health medicine (Zuardi et al, 2006).
Not only has schizophrenia been investigated in this manner, but also some small pieces of initial evidence have been uncovered that show CBD as effective against social anxiety disorder and depression.
One of the more publicised effects of CBD involves Dravet syndrome – a rare and particularly nasty branch of epilepsy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD is a very effective treatment for this condition, there is no evidence found in scientific studies to suggest that this would be the case.
Differences between swallowed and inhaled marijuana
To fully understand the role of cannabis in medicine, it is important to first determine the difference between the effects of the drug when ingested compared to when it is inhaled, as would happen when a recreational user smokes a joint. The major difference is within the way that the THC is absorbed with the body (Weinberg et al, 1983). The THC moves into a different system during the various actions, with an edible THC source sending the chemicals into the digestive system, rather than through the respiratory system and directly into the bloodstream. This results in the THC entering the liver when cannabis is swallowed, and this leads to the liver metabolizing the THC into 11-hydroxy-THC, which will provide a far more potent high for anyone who consumes it (Schwilke et al, 2009).
This also leads to a number of different effects, with the effects taking longer to be felt in an ingested context than when it is inhaled. This is due to the speed by which the chemicals can reach the bloodstream. However, this results in the natural pain relief that is used within the THC medication having a longer lasting effect on the body, which puts it at an advantage to the marijuana smoke.
Medications are often administered in two seperate ways, in jurisdictions where this is legal (Aldridge, 1997). The first of these is as a vapourizer, which administers cannabis smoke in a way similar to a regular joint, but eliminates many of the health problems associated with this. The second option is pills. Pills are consumed like the edible cannabis, and have many of the same properties, especially the naturally longer lasting effect. The other effects are somewhat nullified by the properties of a pill, which dissolves into the bloodstream rather than going through full digestion, and thus doesn’t take as long to be felt, and does not metabolize to the 11-hydroxy-THC. This makes pills potentially the more appropriate source for medication to be administered, although there are concerns that haven’t been answered about possible side effects with a THC pill (Wade et al, 2007). These will be covered in more detail further into this paper.
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