In science’s struggle to keep up with life
on the streets, smoking cannabis for
medical purposes stands as Exhibit A.
Medical use of cannabis has taken on
momentum of its own, surging ahead of
scientists’ ability to measure the drug’s
benefits. The pace has been a little too
quick for some, who see medicinal joints
as a punch line, a ruse to free up access
to a recreational drug.
But while the medical marijuana
movement has been generating political news, some researchers have been
quietly moving in new directions — testing cannabis and its derivatives against
a host of diseases. The scientific literature now brims with potential uses for
cannabis that extend beyond its well-known abilities to fend off nausea and
block pain in people with cancer and
AIDS. Cannabis derivatives may combat multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease
and other inflammatory conditions, the
new research finds. Cannabis may even
kill cancerous tumors.
Many in the scientific community are
now keen to see if this potential will be
fulfilled, but they haven’t always been.
Pharmacologist Roger Pertwee of the
University of Aberdeen in Scotland
recalls attending scientific conferences
30 years ago, eager to present his latest
findings on the therapeutic effects of
cannabis. It was a hard sell.
“Our talks would be scheduled at the
end of the day, and our posters would be
stuck in the corner somewhere,” he says.
“That’s all changed.”
By Nathan Seppa
The long march to credibility for cannabis research has been built on molecular
biology. Smoking or otherwise consuming marijuana — Latin name Cannabis
sativa — has a medical history that dates
back thousands of years. But the eupho-ria-inducing component of cannabis,
delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC,
wasn’t isolated until 1964, by biochemist
Raphael Mechoulam, then of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot,
Israel, and his colleagues. Within two
decades, other researchers had developed synthetic THC to use in pill form.