For at least 10,000 years, cannabis has been used as a drug for medicine, as an intoxicant, and in religious rituals. Before cannabis was banned in the United States by the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, cannabis medicines were provided in the United States by major pharmaceutical companies. By the mid-20th century, the perception of cannabis and its extracts had devolved from commonly prescribed medical treatment to dangerous narcotic, driven by fears of increased recreational use and an imperfect understanding of how cannabis works within the body. Cannabis prohibition was driven more by societal pressures and baseless fears than from real scientific evidence about the drug’s medicinal value.
This decline in cannabis’ reputation as a medicine was reversed beginning in the early 1960?s when Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, a Bulgarian/Israeli natural products chemist first uncovered the structure of THC, the primary psychoactive constituent of cannabis. Mechoulam and his team at Hebrew University went on to discover the human endocannabinoid system, a physiological system within the body responsible for intercellular signaling and broad regulation of appetite and metabolism. The effects of cannabis come from its interaction with the endocannabinoid system.
The human body produces substances called endogenous cannabinoids or endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids activate receptors on cell membranes throughout the body, especially within the brain and the gut. There are three major types of cannabinoids: endocannabinoids, phytocannabinoids (such as THC produced by cannabis), and synthetic cannabinoids such as HU-210 developed by Mechoulam’s team (HU stands for Hebrew University) that has been shown to be a potent pain reliever and potential Alzheimer’s treatment.
In the 1990’s, cannabis was proven to provide relief from types of pain that morphine-type drugs could not (Russo in Pain Management, 2001). Cannabis was also one of the few drugs that could prevent or reverse wasting syndrome in cancer and AIDS patients (Gorter in Cancer, Cachexia, and Cannabinoids, 2000). These insights into the body’s endocannabinoid system combined to further the rehabilitation of cannabis as a modern medicine.
Today, research progresses in Europe, Israel, Japan and the rest of the world on cannabis and related compounds as medicines and the endocannabinoid system, while cannabis research in the United States remains severely constrained by the federal Controlled Substances Act.