History of research
The many healing properties of medicinal cannabis have been studied worldwide for thousands of years*. It is believed that the earliest use of medicinal cannabis was in Asia around 500 BC, followed by Africa, Europe and the Americas.
Most ancient cultures – like ancient China, Greece, Italy and India – grew cannabis for medicinal purposes to help ease a number of health conditions.
Centuries later, in the 1800s, doctors were still using cannabis to cure a range of ailments. Scientists would later discover that Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was a key component of cannabis’ medicinal properties – a breakthrough that would lead to using the plant for a number of modern treatments.
History of legislation and legalisation
In response to the growing criticism of the opium trade in the early 20th century, the League of Nations signed a multilateral treaty restricting use of drugs like cannabis to scientific and medical use only. Around the same time, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom began to criminalise cannabis during the prohibition era.
Today, governments worldwide are beginning to change their stance on cannabis and embrace its medicinal possibilities. Studies are finding that medicinal cannabis is an effective, affordable and natural treatment for a variety of illnesses. As such, legal cannabis markets are evolving rapidly around the world.
The growth has largely been driven by Canada and in the United States where recreational consumption has been legalised. Other countries like the United Kingdom and Germany are also beginning to make great advancements in the use of plant based therapies.
In 2016, the Australian government established a licensing and permit scheme for the lawful research, cultivation and manufacturing of medicinal products. With superior climate conditions and high green standards, Australia has positioned itself to be a key supply centre for the rest of the world.
Research studies are finding that medicinal cannabis can be an effective, affordable and natural treatment for a variety of illnesses.
Types of cannabis plants
It is widely believed that there are many different types of cannabis which can each be differentiated by their phenotypes (or, their visual appearance) and typified by their different chemotypes (or, their chemical composition). However, this is no longer accurate.
Historically, there were two main species of cannabis, Indica and Sativa, which were identifiable by their different phenotypes and chemotypes. Their individual make-ups had different effects and were therefore used for different medicinal uses. This information is no longer accurate, though you may continue to see this information distributed. Over time, the various species of cannabis have become so hybridized that taxonomically, or scientifically, they have become the same thing.
How medicinal cannabis works: explaining the endocannabinoid system
The endocannabinoid system plays a role in regulating a range of body functions including:
- and many other functions.
These functions contribute to finding homeostasis, or the balance of your internal system.
The endocannabinoid system is made up of three main parts:
- receptors; and
Endocannabinoids are the body’s own version of cannabis compounds. There are two key endocannabinoids – anandamide (AEA) and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Your body creates these as needed in order to keep internal functions running smoothly.
AEA is a long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid and has homeostasis regulating properties, playing an essential role in many of our biological functions and emotions. AEA influences homeostasis by binding with endocannabinoid receptors.
2-AG is a signalling lipid found in the central nervous system. It is a key regulator of neurotransmitter release, and activates the cannabinoid CB1 receptor. It is associated with bodily functions such as emotion, pain sensation, cognition and energy.
Endocannabinoids are neurotransmitters that modify the activity of other transmitters, binding to the receptors of other cells.
Typically, neurotransmitters are released from a presynaptic cell, travel across the synapse and attach to a receptor on a postsynaptic cell. They then send that receiving neuron into action. The endocannabinoid system behaves differently. When the postsynaptic neuron is activated, cannabinoids are created from fat cells that are already present in the neuron. Once released, they travel back to the presynaptic neuron and attach as cannabinoid receptors. They are then in control of how chemical messages are sent, received and processed to the body.
2. Endocannabinoid receptors
Endocannabinoid receptors are found all over the body. The receptors mediate the effects of cannabinoids and endocannabinoids. It is believed that they are connected to physiological and pathophysiological roles in the body such as regulation of appetite, mood and immune functions.
Studies have currently identified two cannabinoid receptors: CB1 and CB2.
CB1 is mostly found in the gonads, glands, organs, connective tissue and central nervous system.
CB2 can be found in the peripheral nervous system, particularly in immune cells.
Endocannabinoids can bind to either receptor. The resulting effect depends on the location of the receptor and which endocannabinoid it connects with. Once bound the endocannabinoid system is kicked into action relieving pain, inflammation or other ailments.
Enzymes control the breakdown of the endocannabinoids after they have completed their function. There are two main enzymes: fatty acid amide hydrolase (in charge of breaking down AEA) and monoacylglycerol acid lipase (in charge of breaking down 2-AG).
Endocannabinoid deficiency is a theory in which researchers believe that underlying cause of ailments – particularly those related to inflammation and the immune system – occur when the body’s endocannabinoid system is not functioning correctly. This upsets the body’s homeostasis, leaving the body more susceptible to diseases.
It is believed that a deficiency in endocannabinoids can be linked to disorders like migraine, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. More studies are needed in this area, but some researchers believe that cannabinoids can help minimise disease symptoms by assisting the endocannabinoid system to function properly.
Cannabis and the endocannabinoid system
Cannabis contains over 60 compounds, but the main cannabinoids that interact with the Endocannabinoid System are Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD).
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is known as the ‘one that gets you high’ – it is the psychoactive cannabinoid. It binds to both CB1 and CB2 receptors which makes it very useful for medicinal purposes.
THC binds to the receptors in three main places in the brain: the cerebellum, basal ganglia and hippocampus. These control short term memory, learning, problem-solving and coordination. THC mimics anandamide and binds to the receptors to activate the neurons that affect the mind and body.
THC can be used to combat:
Cannabidiol (CBD) does not seem to react the same way as THC. Instead, researchers theorise that it prevents endocannabinoids from being broken down, thus having a greater effect. It does not cause a ‘high’ and is therefore considered ‘non-psychoactive’. That means it counteracts the effects of THC, reducing memory impairment and paranoia.
CBD can be used to combat:
- psychosis disorders
- neurodegenerative disorders
- tumor growth; and
- cancer cell growth.
The entourage effect
There are hundreds of phytocannabinoids - like Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) - in a plant which affect the endocannabinoid system. When used separately, each will have a different effect on your system.
The entourage effect suggests that when these are taken together with other organic compounds found in cannabis – like terpenes or terpenoids – the health outcome is greater than taking each individually.
Format and administration
There are a number of cannabis formats including, dried flower (bud), vape concentrate, oil, oral spray and softgels.
Prescriptions can therefore be taken a variety of ways:
- Inhalation: Dried flower and vape concentrate are inhaled. The effects are typically felt immediately, however it can take up to 30 minutes to reach full effect. Effects last anywhere from 2 hours to 4 hours.
- Ingestion and sublingual: Oil, oral spray and softgels can all be ingested or administered sublingually (under the tongue). Their effects are typically felt in the first two hours of administration, lasting anywhere from 6 hours to 8 hours.
- Topical: Oils can also be added to lotions, gels or creams that can be applied topically. The effects are typically felt immediately depending on the application site. Effects last for one or two hours and need to be applied frequently.
Dosage, concentration, individual biological factors and method of consumption will all affect your response time to feeling the effects of medicinal cannabis. If you’re in Melbourne, Victoria, Brisbane, or Queensland and want to learn more, speak to your doctor or make contact.