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The surprising effectiveness of medical marijuana

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The other highly surprising thing I learnt at the recent SSDP UK conference was just how amazingly effective cannabis is as a medicine. Obviously, I knew that marijuana was available as ‘medicine’ in some countries and US states. But I largely thought the quotation marks were serving a purpose. While I had no doubt that it was a good psychic remedy. If it was at all genuinely medicinal, I had the vague idea that it’s main benefits were largely secondary, a palliative that helps managed pain and nausea.  In fact, medical marijuana does a lot more than that. A hell of a lot more. To give you some idea take a look at this list of over a hundred treatable conditions. And it really is treatment, not just management of pain and other side effects. It may even cure cancer.

The point was brought forcefully home to me at the conference by two patient/activists,  Clark French and Greg de Hoedt, who hosted a panel on their own experiences. Clark French has multiple sclerosis and has at times been confined to a wheelchair by his condition. Taking regular medications certainly helped his condition but often with numerous unpleasant side effects, which then required more drugs with more side effects. Before trying medical marijuana he was on a cocktail of 11 different medications and he was still sick. Then he discovered that marijuana helped with every single symptom. Since then he has visited California to talk to medical marijuana professionals and discover which strains would work best for him. His MS is still there but it is much more under control and as a result of using marijuana he has cut down to just one other medication.

Greg de Hoedt has found marijuana to be equally effective in helping him manage his Crohn’s Disease. Greg is a documentary filmmaker, video bloggerand activist. After discovering that cannabis was the one of the best medicines for his condition, Greg set up Cannabis Cure UK, an advocacy group for patients who benefit from their use of marijuana. He has quit his job and works full time on health and advocacy. He spent 6 months in California documenting and learning about the legal medical marijuana market that has existed for over a decade and meeting the community associated with it. Since returning he has started a documentary covering the challenges faced patients trying to do the same in the UK whilst marijuana remains illegal. The latest venture from Cannabis Cure UK involves the promotion of regional Cannabis Social Clubs to support patients socially, medcially and politcally.

No one really knows why cannabis is such an effective medicine against such a wide range of diseases. One possibility might be due to it’s similarity to the body’s own signalling chemicals known as endocannabinoids, Natually occuring chemicals in the body that have similar chemical structure to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the active chemicals in marijuana. Meaning that cannabis could affect the same cannibinoid receptors found on the surface of many cells.  Endocannibinoids and the corresponding receptor system were first discovered in the 1980′s and research into them has only really taken off in the last ten years. But they are now very much a hot topic in both neuroscience and pharmacology.

That’s because there appear to be two classes of cannibinoid receptors CB1 and CB2. CB1 receptors are found on the surface of cell in the central nervous system. CB2 receptors are found mainly in the immune system. CB1 receptors are of great interest to neuroscience and very likely that it is due them that cannabis has its psychoactive effects. The effects of CB2 on the immune system may help explain its remarkable medicinal properties, particularly its beneficial effects for many auto-immune disorders like MS and Crohn’s disease.

However, the truth is that at this point in time, very little is know about either the body’s natural cannibinoid system nor the effects that marijuana can have on it. There’s a great amount of anecdotal evidence from patients who have been helped and a growing list of scientific studies verifying this. But a lot more research is needed. At the moment this research is severely hampered by marijuana illegal status in most of the world. Even in those states in the US where medical marijuana is permitted, research cannot be carried out because at a national/federal level marijuna remains a schedule one drug, said to have no medical benefits.

Knowing this, I now understand a little bit better why medical marijuana is more than just something to make people ‘feel better’, why people with very serious conditions are risking jail to get their medicine and why we need more activism and advocacy in this area.


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