If you’d said to me a year ago that I’d be spending my days writing about medical cannabis, I’d have laughed and said you were crazy. Cannabis just wasn’t on my radar. I hadn’t smoked it since my 20s, and while I’d seen the odd headline about the purported healing effects of the plant, I’d taken it all with a hefty pinch of salt.
Until that is, my friend’s mother was prescribed cannabis oil in the last few weeks of her life. The end stages of pancreatic cancer, several rounds of chemo and heavy doses of morphine had left her wracked with pain, confused, and with little quality of life. Out of desperation the family turned to cannabis, which returned her lucidity, managed the pain, and allowed her to die with dignity.
That’s when everything changed for me and life could never go back to how it was before. As a writer I knew that my way of making a difference was to use the written word to shake off the stigma associated with the cannabis plant, and bring the truth to light.
So here I am, a year into this adventure with a head stuffed full of cannabinoids, terpenes, and more PubMed papers than I know what to do with. But with every article I write, I am more convinced of the importance to humanity of proper, regulated access to medical cannabis.
In celebration then of my first cannabis birthday, here are 10 reasons I’m glad this exceptional gift of nature is in my life.
1. I have come to appreciate the extraordinary complexities of the cannabis plant
Before starting on this journey, I just thought of cannabis as being this plant that made people stoned. It never occurred to me that it might contain over 400 compounds, nor that they might work in some kind of unexplainable synergy. Within this molecular melee there are over a hundred cannabinoids (the most famous being THC and CBD), and 200 terpenes (the chemicals that give the pungent smell). This complexity might make the plant a nightmare to study, but for me it adds to its mystery.
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2. Cannabis has taught me the importance of whole plant medicine
As a society, we’ve been indoctrinated into thinking that popping a synthetic pill is a much more effective way of looking after our health than going to the original source. We do it with the vitamins and minerals we buy, and also the pills we self-medicate with.
As more scientific evidence comes to light surrounding the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids like THC and CBD, there is a tendency in research to isolate individual cannabinoids or make synthetic versions. That’s because when it comes to getting a drug to market, these are more financially viable options.
But, and there is a but, studies show that whole plant extracts are more therapeutically effective. Why? Well it’s down to what’s known as the entourage effect, whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In cannabis terms, scientists suggest that there is a kind of synergy between the cannabinoids and terpenes, and by isolating just one active compound, this detracts from the overall effect.
3. I now know we have an endocannabinoid system
This has possibly been the biggest gear change for me; the fact that a biological system so significant as the endocannabinoid system (ECS) exists, and yet hardly anyone outside of the medical cannabis world knows about it.
For anyone who is unsure, the endocannabinoid system was discovered by scientists in the 1990s looking to understand the effect of THC on the body. What they discovered was a complex network of receptors and cannabis-like chemicals all working together to bring internal balance. The ECS fine-tunes all the major physiological functions in the body, ranging from sleep, appetite, our immune system, pain, reproduction and mood. Not only that, but it is believed that a weak ECS could be the cause of a host of modern day ailments, ranging from IBS, fibromyalgia to migraines.
4. Which explains why cannabis affects so many health conditions
Ok, so this is where things get really interesting. For thousands of years, the cannabis plant has been used to treat a whole host of maladies, everything from headaches, period pain, epilepsy and depression. Back then no one really questioned why one plant could have an effect on so many health conditions.
But with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system, everything slowly began to make sense. That’s because scientists have found that introducing plant cannabinoids has a direct influence on the ECS, strengthening its capacity to balance the body and mind. And when you consider that the ECS is involved in practically every physiological function in the body, it's little wonder that cannabis has an effect on such a variety of illnesses.
5. I’ve discovered CBD
Ok, so it’s to be expected that working for a CBD company I might sing its praises. But discovering CBD has changed my life. Not only for its therapeutic potential for everything from arthritis to epilepsy, but because it’s enabled me to bring the cannabis plant into the lives of people who would never have considered it an option before.
One example is Phil, who shall hereon in be known as feisty Phil, the 82 year old mother of a friend who’d had rheumatoid arthritis for most of her adult life. Because of its non-psychoactive effect, I could happily discuss CBD with her, just as she then did with her own rheumatology consultant before deciding to proceed with CBD oil drops. Phil was delighted with the almost immediate improvement in her symptoms after taking CBD, and I was thrilled that someone in their eighties would embrace cannabis with such open arms.
6. I’ve realised THC isn’t bad
That said, I now have a greater respect for THC, which in light of its psychoactivity, gets an unjustified, bad rap. THC has many pharmacological effects relevant to a multitude of illnesses such as glaucoma, PTSD, depression and cancer. But it does need to be accompanied by other key compounds in the plant such as CBD, which act to potentiate its effect and lessen the feeling of being stoned.
7. I know the importance of antioxidants for our health
A recurring theme in the articles I’ve written is the role of chronic inflammation in many illnesses. Everything from neurodegenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, to autoimmune diseases and even cancer all share a common factor: a precursor of chronic inflammation.
Oxidative stress is one cause of inflammation, which can come about as a consequence of cellular damage produced by free radicals. We currently experience more oxidative stress than before due to our unhealthy lifestyles, pollution, and stress. Therefore our systems need an external helping hand in the form of antioxidants. These can be found in fruit, vegetables, red wine (in moderation) and guess what, cannabis. In fact, the antioxidant nature of cannabinoids such as THC and CBD has been recognised by the US government in its patent ‘Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants,’ suggesting that cannabis could even perform a protective role for our health.
8. I’ve learned about the magical world of terpenes
Terpenes are the little guys that give cannabis and every other flower, plant or herb in nature their distinctive aroma. Many of the terpenes in cannabis can be found in other more common or garden plants: Linalool in lavender, myrcene in cloves, limonene in citrus fruit and β-caryophyllene in black pepper. But the extent of their powers don’t just stop with making nature smell great. They have also been found to have effects as varied as lifting depression, being anti-bacterial, relieving pain and reducing epileptic seizures. It’s another reason why opting for whole plant extracts is always the ideal choice.
9. I get to speak to some awe inspiring folk
There are many amazing people who have found themselves by luck or design in the world of medical cannabis. As a non-scientist I was a bit nervous at first speaking to the big-brained investigators who have made some key discoveries in the world of cannabinoid science. But thankfully until now, they’ve patiently answered my questions, which have hopefully got less stupid as the year has progressed.
And then there are the medical cannabis activists. Be they patients, parents or just gritty individuals who’ve decided to fight the cause, I am in awe of their dogged determination and fearlessness in the face of what can seem like an interminable struggle.
10. I’ve realised how important it is to campaign for change
It’s easy to get bogged down by conspiracy theories and talk of dark forces in the medical cannabis world. Are the pharmaceutical companies blocking legalization and research into cannabinoids? Are the governments in cahoots with big pharma by refusing to address the often laughable inconsistencies of cannabis scheduling?
But, in the short time I’ve been in this world, I have noted a significant shift in public sentiment. Cases such as Vera Twomey, the Irish accidental activist whose battle to get medical cannabis for her severely ill daughter is credited with changing politicians' minds when they voted for legalization last year. Stories like Vera’s give hope that individuals can indeed make a difference, and how on the odd occasion the indomitable human spirit can still move mountains.
So that's me - one year into my cannabis adventure. I'd love to hear about why you're glad cannabis is in your life. Please leave your comments below.