In the 13 years since California passed a law allowing for the medical use of marijuana, a dozen more states, including Washington, have followed suit. Today, all the Pacific states allow people to grow or possess marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation, as do several states in the Mountain West, a few in New England and some along the Eastern Seaboard – despite the continued insistence by the federal Food and Drug Administration that the herb is a dangerous drug with no valid medical benefits.
Medical MarijuanaBy far, the most widespread support for the move to allow marijuana smoking for medicinal purposes has been on behalf of people with AIDS Wasting Syndrome or on cancer chemotherapy. The chief benefit noted for these patients has had to do with a reduction in nausea and the stimulation of appetite, something anyone who has experienced the “blind raving munchies” can attest to.
Proponents of medical marijuana have not stopped there, however. Advocates cite reports that marijuana can be beneficial in treating a range of illnesses, even though the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration provide few, if any, opportunities for researchers to investigate these claims.
One of the least publicized of these claims is that cannabis can be a help for people with Multiple Sclerosis. MS affects the ability of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord to communicate with each other due to damage of the myelin sheath, an insulating coat around nerve cells that allow them to pass electrical signals. While theories abound for ultimate causes of MS, from genetics to environmental exposure to toxins, it is well understood to be an autoimmune disease. That is, the body’s natural defense systems attack the myelin layers in the brain. In that sense, it is like other chronic conditions, including Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus.
Recently, indirect evidence has surfaced which could go a long way in explaining the potential for marijuana to improve the outlook for MS patients. Scientists generally believe that marijuana’s high is a result of cannabinols, the active ingredients in the smoke, binding to a receptor on brain cells called CB1 receptors.
In June, Temple University physiologist Ron Tuma and his team released a report on work they have done studying a related receptor known as CB2. The Microvascular Research report reveals that selectively targeting CB2 receptors reduces injury and tissue death after a certain kind of stroke. Additionally, a New Zealand pharmacologist at the University of Auckland, Michelle Glass, recently noted that activating the CB2 receptors can shield neurons from damage, possibly by stopping immune cells in the brain, known as microglia, from triggering an inflammatory response.
Some drug researchers find this particularly exciting because binding proteins to the CB2 receptors does not result in people getting high. How much attention this gets from pharmaceutical companies may depend on how widespread the CB2 receptors are in the body, a matter of some scientific controversy. In the meantime, patients with MS will just have to put up with getting stoned.
by Manny Frishberg
October 14, 2009