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Marijuana Is More Than Just THC: A Look at the Untapped Healing Compounds

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Marijuana Is More Than Just THC: A Look at the Untapped Healing Compounds
TorriPhoto / Moment / Getty Images

By James David Adams

Medical marijuana is legal in 33 states as of November 2018. Yet the federal government still insists marijuana has no legal use and is easy to abuse. In the meantime, medical marijuana dispensaries have an increasing array of products available for pain, anxiety, sex and more.

The glass counters and their jars of products in the dispensary resemble an 18th century pharmacy. Many strains for sale have evocative and magical names like Blue Dream, Bubba Kush and Chocolope. But what does it all mean? Are there really differences in the medical qualities of the various strains? Or, are the different strains with the fanciful names all just advertising gimmicks?


I am a professor in the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. I have lived in California a long time and remember the Haight-Ashbury Summer of Love. While in graduate school, I worked with Prof. Alexander Shulgin, the father of designer drugs, who taught me the chemistry of medicinal plants. Afterwards, while a professor at USC, I learned Chumash healing from a Native American Chumash healer for 14 years from 1998 until 2012. She taught me how to make medicines from Californian plants, but not marijuana, which is not native to the U.S. Currently, I am teaching a course in medical marijuana to pharmacy students.

If there is one thing about marijuana that is certain: In small doses it can boost libido in men and women, leading to more sex. But can marijuana really be used for medical conditions?

What are Cannabinoids?

New research is revealing that marijuana is more than just a source of cannabinoids, chemicals that may bind to cannabinoid receptors in our brains, which are used to get high. The most well-known is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana is a particularly rich source of medicinal compounds that we have only begun to explore. In order to harness the full potential of the compounds in this plant, society needs to overcome misconceptions about marijuana and look at what research clearly says about the medical value.

The FDA has already made some moves in this direction by approving prescription drugs that come from marijuana including dronabinol, nabilone, nabiximols and cannabidiol. Dronabinol and nabilone are cannabinoids that are used for nausea. Nabiximols — which contain THC, the compound most responsible for marijuana's high and cannabidiol, which does not induce a high — are used to treat multiple sclerosis. Cannabidiol, or CBD, is also used to treat some types of epilepsy.

Marijuana, originally from the Altai Mountains in Central and East Asia, contains at least 85 cannabinoids and 27 terpenes, fragrant oils that are produced by many herbs and flowers that may be active, drug-like compounds. THC is the cannabinoid everyone wants in order to get high. It is produced from THC acid — which constitutes up to 25 percent of the plant's dry weight — by smoking or baking any part of the marijuana plant.

THC mimics a naturally occurring neurotransmitter called anandamide that works as a signaling molecule in the brain. Anandamide attaches to proteins in the brain called cannabinoid receptors, which then send signals related to pleasure, memory, thinking, perception and coordination, to name a few. THC works by hijacking these natural cannabinoid receptors, triggering a profound high.

Tetrahydrocannabivarinic acid, another cannabinoid, can constitute up to 10 percent of the dry weight. It is converted to another compound that probably contributes to a high, tetrahydrocannabivarin, when smoked or ingested in baked goods. Potent varieties like Doug's Varin and Tangie may contain even higher concentrations.

Medical Properties of Marijuana

But not all cannabinoids make you high. Cannabidiol, a cannabinoid similar to THC, and its acid are also present in marijuana, especially in certain varieties. But these do not cause euphoria. The cannabidiol molecule interacts with a variety of receptors — including cannabinoid and serotonin receptors and transient receptor potential cation channels (TRP) – to reduce seizures, combat anxiety and produce other effects.

Marijuana also contains several monoterpenoids — small, aromatic molecules — that have a wide range of activities including pain and anxiety relief and that work by inhibiting TRP channels.

Myrcene is the most abundant monoterpenoid, a type or terpene, in marijuana. It can relax muscles. Other terpenes such as pinene, linalool, limonene and the sesquiterpene, beta-caryophyllene are pain relievers, especially when applied directly to the skin as a liniment. Some of these terpenes may add to the high when marijuana is smoked.

What Do All These Varieties Do?

Many different varieties of marijuana are on the market and are alleged to treat a range of diseases. The FDA has no oversight for these claims, since the FDA does not recognize marijuana as a legal product.

Strains of marijuana are grown that produce more THC than cannadidiol or vice versa. Other varieties have abundant monoterpenoids. How do you know that the strain you choose is legitimate with probable medical benefits? Each strain should have a certificate of analysis that shows you how much of each active compound is present in the product you buy. Many states have a bureau of cannabis control that verifies these certificates of analysis. However, many certificates of analysis do not show the monoterpenoids present in the marijuana. The analysis of monoterpenoids is difficult since they evaporate from the plant material. If you are looking for a strain high in myrcene or linalool, ask for proof.

Marijuana can improve several conditions, but it can also make others worse and can have nasty side effects.

As recreational use has become more widespread, marijuana hyperemesis syndrome is becoming more of a problem in our society. Some people vomit uncontrollably after smoking marijuana regularly. It can be treated by rubbing a cream made from capsaicin, from chili peppers, on the abdomen. Capsaicin cream is available in pharmacies.

Also, high THC varieties of marijuana, such as Royal Gorilla and Fat Banana, can cause anxiety and even psychosis in some people.

Researchers have also shown that anxiety can be effectively treated with strains that have more cannabidiol and linalool. It may be best to rub a cannabidiol balm or lotion on your cheeks to relieve anxiety.

Other conditions that studies have shown are improved by marijuana are: cancer induced nausea, Type 2 diabetes, two forms of epilepsy, HIV-induced weight gain, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, pain, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep disorders and traumatic brain injury.

For some of these conditions, studies show that eating or topically applying marijuana products rather than smoking is recommended.

Clearly, more research is needed from the scientific community to help guide the appropriate, safe use of marijuana. However, the FDA does not recognize the use of medical marijuana. This makes funding for research on marijuana difficult to find. Perhaps the cannabis industry should consider funding scientific research on marijuana. But conflicts of interest may become a concern as we have seen with drug company-sponsored studies.

James David Adams is an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Southern California.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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