Overview of Medical Marijuana Research

Attitudes toward cannabis are shifting as credible medical research efforts continue to reveal the plant’s exciting therapeutic potential. Ample studies have shown cannabis could be a viable treatment option for alleviating neuropathic pain, nausea and spasms and for providing anti-inflammatory and healing effects for those with serious conditions like multiple sclerosis, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer and spinal cord injuries. No longer unfairly brushed aside as simply a recreational drug, marijuana and its remedial capabilities continue to be investigated through viable medical studies.

Groundbreaking Findings About Medical Marijuana

Over the past decade, medical research has made intriguing discoveries about cannabis and its therapeutic effects. Studies have shown that medical marijuana:

  • has anti-cancer effects
  • can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
  • reduces the debilitating seizures caused by epilepsy
  • reduces spasms experienced by those with multiple sclerosis
  • curtails the pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy and traditional AIDS/HIV treatments so that patients can more comfortably continue medical care
  • minimizes the neurological damage caused by spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries*

*Sources: (McAllister, Soroceanu & Desprez, 2015) (Iuvone, et al., 2004) (More & Choi, 2015) (Blair, Deshpande & DeLorenzo, 2015) (Lakhan & Rowland, 2009) (Bar-Sela, et al., 2015) (Abrams, et al., 2007) (Latini, et al., 2014) (Mechoulam & Shohami, 2007).

Challenges Facing Research

Marijuana’s therapeutic effects have been scientifically explored for many years. It’s first documented use as a therapeutic agent dates back to 2,700 BC and medical journals from America and Europe published more than 100 articles on cannabis and its beneficial effects between the years of 1840 and 1900 (Zuardi, 2006). Marijuana was even a common component of the medical field in the United States up until 1942 when, despite objections by the American Medical Association, congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which federally restricted cannabis (Aggarwal, et al., 2009). The federal restriction was then later affirmed when cannabis was classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Cannabis’ Schedule 1 status causes hurdles for researchers, who must acquire a Schedule 1 research registration from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and typically a Schedule 1 research license from the state-controlled drugs agency. Researchers also have to obtain their cannabis material from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the sole source of research-grade cannabis that is federally lawful. These requirements can take three to six months, pushing out the starting date of research projects. These obstacles have hindered the volume of human clinical research and thus handicapped the collection of data on effectiveness, dosage, safety and delivery systems.

Exciting Findings Nevertheless

Despite the logistical difficulties, medical research has shown true promise for cannabis. Research into the pharmacology of individual cannabinoids began in the 1940s, and increased markedly in the mid-1960s and early 1970s when scientists were able to identify the first cannabinoid (Pertwee, 2006). Early animal experiments and human studies showed cannabis’ ability to elevate mood, appetite and pain, but an explanation of how it brought about these benefits remained unknown.

Findings began to flourish, however, in 1988 when scientists discovered the endocannabinoid system, a sophisticated group of neuromodulators, receptors and signaling pathways that regulate numerous physiological processes like mood, memory, pain, appetite and movement (Pertwee, 2006). While cannabis contains more than 100 cannabinoids, it’s two in particular, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), that have been found to interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system. THC and CBD stimulate the cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2, which in turn work to regulate a myriad of neurotransmitter systems. CB1 receptors are located in the central nervous system (brain) and other tissues like the kidneys, liver, digestive tract, lungs and eyes. CB2 receptors are primarily found in tissues associated with the immune system.

The identification of these cannabinoid receptors triggered additional studies that explored the relationship between THC and CBD and the endocannabinoid system and the regulatory role it plays in health and disease (Pacher, Batkai & Kunos, 2006) (Di Marzo, Bifulco & De Petrocellis, 2004). Throughout the past two decades, studies have shown that modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system with the cannabinoids found in cannabis offer therapeutic benefits in a wide range of diseases. The upregulation of the endocannabinoid system with THC and CBD, for example, has shown to reduce the severity of symptoms like neuropathic pain and muscle spasms and slow the progression of diseases like multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, osteoporosis, glaucoma, hypertension, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, intestinal diseases, cardiovascular diseases, mood and anxiety disorders, traumatic head injury, and even cancer (Di Marzo, Bifulco & De Petrocellis, 2004) (Pertwee, 2006) (Pacher, Batkai & Kunos, 2006). In addition, studies have shown that cannabis is more effective than older traditional medications like phenothiazines and antihistaminics for treating nausea and vomiting (CA).

According to Americans for Safe Access, more than 15,000 modern peer-reviewed scientific articles exploring the pharmacology of cannabis and its cannabinoids have been published by medical journals.

Looking Ahead

Cannabis research continues to face regulatory, botanical and pharmacological challenges. However, in order for cannabis to be considered for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and to garner trust from physicians, randomized clinical trials following accepted scientific methods need to further prove the safety and effectiveness of cannabis-based medicines (Russo, Mead & Sulak, 2015). However, the recent plethora of therapeutic findings have dramatically invigorated the cannabis research field and the National Institutes of Health, the Institute of Medicine, and the American College of Physicians have all issued statements in support for further cannabis research and development (Aggarwal, et al., 2009).


Abrams, DI., Jay, CA., Shade, SB., Vizoso, H., Reda, H., Press, S., Kelly, ME., Rowbotham, MC. and Petersen, KL. (2007, February). Cannabis in painful HIV-associated sensory neuropathy: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Neurology, 68(7), 515-21.

Aggarwal, S.K., Carter, G.T., Sullivan, M.D., ZumBrunnen, C., Morrill, R., and Mayer, J.D. (2009, May-June). Medicinal use of cannabis in the United States: historical perspectives, current trends, and future directions. Journal of Opioid Management, 5(3), 153-68.

Bar-Sela, G., Vorobeichik, M., Drawsheh, S., Omer, A., Goldberg, V., and Muller, E. (2013). The Medical Necessity for Medicinal Cannabis: Prospective, Observational Study Evaluating the Treatment in Cancer Patients on Supportive or Palliative Care. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013, 510392. Retrieved from http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2013/510392/

Blair, RE., Deshpande, LS., and  DeLorenzo, RJ. (2015, September). Cannabinoids: is there a potential treatment role in epilepsy? Expert Opinion on Pharmacology, 16(13), 1911-4.

Di Marzo, V., Bifulco, M., and De Petrocellis, L. (2004, September). The endocannabinoid system and its therapeutic exploitation. Nature Reviews, 3(9), 771-84.

Iuvone, T., Esposito, G., Esposito, R., Santamaria, R., Di Rosa, M., and Izzo, A.A. (2004, April). Neuroprotective effect of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component from Cannabis sativa, on beta-amyloid-induced toxicity in PC12 cells. Journal of Neurochemistry, 89(1), 134-41.

Kalant, H., and Porath-Waller, A.J. (2014). Clearing the smoke on cannabis: medical use of cannabis and cannabinoids. Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.ccsa.ca/Resource%20Library/CCSA-Medical-Use-of-Cannabis-2012-en.pdf.

Lakhan S.E., and Rowland M. (2009). Whole plant cannabis extracts in the treatment of spasticity in multiple sclerosis: a systematic review. BMC Neurology, 9(59), doi:10.1186/1471-2377-9-59.

Latini, L., Bisicchia, E., Sasso, V., Chiurchiu, V., Cavallucci, V., Molinari, M., Maccarrone, M., and Viscomi, M.T. (2014, September 4). Cannabinoid CB2 receptor (CB2R). stimulation delays rubrospinal mitochondrial-dependent degeneration and improves functional recovery after spinal cord hemisection by ERK1/2 inactivation. Cell Death & Disease, e1404.

McAllister, S.D., Soroceanu, L., and Desprez, P.Y. (2015, June). The Antitumor Activity of Plant-Derived Non-Psychoactive Cannabinoids. Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, 10(2), 255-67.

Mechoulam, R., and Shohami, E. (2007, August). Endocannabinoids and traumatic brain injury. Molecular Neurobiology, 36(1), 68-74.

Medical Cannabis Research. (2015). Americans For Safe Access. Retrieved from http://www.safeaccessnow.org/medical_cannabis_research_what_does_the_evidence_say.

More, S.V., and Choi, D.K. (2015, April). Promising cannabinoid-based therapies for Parkinson’s disease: motor symptoms to neuroprotection. Molecular Neurodegeneration, 10, 17.

Pacher, P., Batkai, S., and Kunos, G. (2006, September). The endocannabinoid system as an emerging target of pharmacotherapy. Pharmacological Reviews, 58(3), 389-462.

Pertwee, R.G. (2006, January). Cannabinoid pharmacology: the first 66 years. British Journal of Pharmacology, 147(Suppl 1), S163-S171.

Russo, E.B., Mead, A.P., and Sulak, D. (2015, April). Current Status and Future of Cannabis Research. Clinical Researcher. Retrieved from http://cannabisclinicians.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Russo-et-al-Current-status-and-future-of-cannabis-research-Clin-Researcher-2015.pdf.

Zuardi, A.W. (2006, June). History of cannabis as a medicine: a review. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria, 28(2), 153-7.

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