Understanding the Endocannabinoid System

By Gooey Rabinski | April 30, 2015

The 1964 discovery and isolation of cannabinoids in marijuana, the therapeutically active components that provide relief for a wide variety of diseases and conditions, has led to research about the endogenous cannabinoid, or  endocannabinoid, system in humans.

It turns out that humans produce their own cannabinoids, chemicals responsible for homeostasis (including fighting off diseases) in a variety of organs and systems of the body. In 1992, the first endocannabinoid, Anandamide, was discovered in a laboratory in Israel. Although knowledge of cannabinoids and endocannabinoids is still relatively shallow, especially compared to other systems of the human body, much has been learned in the 23 years since endocannabinoids were first identified.

Cannabinoids from marijuana, called phytocannabinoids, simply imitate endocannabinoids, plugging into the same receptors in the brain and throughout the nervous and immune systems. Other herbs, like echinacea, also contain non-psychoactive cannabinoids that may play a healing role in the human body (especially in concert with other cannabinoids and terpenes).

What We Know

Despite the medical establishment’s ignorance of cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, one thing that is understood is that cannabinoid receptors — capable of accommodating both cannabinoids produced internally and also those obtained from “outside” sources, like marijuana or other plants — are the most common type of receptors in the human body. There are two types of cannabinoid receptors in humans: CB1 sites, which are found primarily in the nervous system and glands, and CB2, which populate the immune system and related organs.

what is endocannabinoid system

While THC may be the most famous cannabinoid derived from cannabis, more than 100 cannabinoids have been discovered to date. Although medical science is largely ignorant of the function of most of these, great strides have been made in at least understanding that medical benefit is provided by cannabinoids like CBD (cannabidiol) and CBN (cannabinol). Some research has indicated a synergistic effect among cannabinoids and their cousins terpenes, indicating that single-cannabinoid extracts may not provide the greatest efficacy for all patients.

According to the parents of many children that suffer from epilepsy who have been effectively treating them with cannabis, CBD-rich extracts lacking THC are unlikely to always deliver adequate seizure control across wide populations of patients. While controversial, many parents are going public with the message that this science  may not always be as simple as the extraction of a lone cannabinoid from a specific strain of cannabis. In fact, some medical marijuana proponents and parents are advocating against CBD-only legislation.

The most significant fact about cannabinoids is that they are in serious need of more research. As more states legalize cannabis and even greater numbers roll out limited medical marijuana programs — sometimes based on nothing more than the legalization of CBD oil (such as in Georgia) — at least limited medical cannabis legalization at the federal level will become increasingly inevitable (check out the CARERS Act for a current example).

What Has Been Done

Knowledge of the existence of cannabinoids and the basic function of a few major examples, such as THC and CBD, has led to several recent innovations within the medical marijuana industry.

First, as industry standards and content labeling regulations begin to emerge, cannabinoid percentages have begun to appear on product packaging. In addition to an indication of a particular cannabis strain’s status as either sativa or indica, proper titration (dosing) is more easily achieved if patients know, at an objective level, the relative strength of their medicine.

Second, several states have already passed or are considering laws legalizing CBD extracts to treat diseases like epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. Based partly on the judeo christian concept that euphoria is bad, lawmakers (especially Republicans) have been much more likely to support legislation that eliminates the devilish THC molecule from the equation.

A CBD-rich cannabis oil containing virtually no THC is much more likely to be approved by a state like Georgia or Connecticut than outright legalization of whole-plant medical marijuana (such as in progressive states like Colorado and California).

The following 13 states have passed laws that specifically legalize low-THC, high-CBD extracts, or oils, allowing them to be used by qualifying patients:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

Georgia, the most recent state to allow CBD oil for treatment of a narrow list of conditions, passed its law on April 16, 2015. Ironically, on that same day, Idaho’s proposed CBD oil legislation, HB 1146, was vetoed by governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.

infographic credit: The Human Solution

Gooey Rabinski

Gooey Rabinski is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana.

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