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Vice Blog


For this week I wanted to focus on cannabinoids. I've written about them here before, although I was far less informed then. Still though, it's not an easy subject to cover, and this won't be the last time I address them. At this point, the majority of information that's available is written by chemists for chemists and published in expensive textbooks. So, forgive me if my undergraduate pre-grad chemistry education fails you here.


Describing cannabinoids is messy because science is just beginning to understand them. The chemists are still researching and doctors still experimenting with new treatments. We don't even know why cannabis plants make cannabinoids, nor do we fully understand cannabinoid receptors in the brain. That said, an understanding suitable for the layman is beginning to emerge.

In order to explain cannabinoids I have to explain cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors (CB receptors) are inside your body, where they play an important role in communication and regulation amongst cells. They exist in almost every life form except insects. They are agitated by certain chemical compounds and, depending on where they're located, that agitation stimulates a response. The cannabinoids that agitate them come in three forms: synthetic cannabinoids, endocannabinoids, and marijuana cannabinoids. CB receptors come in two forms (although some research suggests a possible third and fourth): CB1 and CB2. Some cannabinoids work only on specific receptors, and some cannabinoids work on both CB receptors but have a preference for one or the other. The CB receptor system dates back over 600 million years in evolutionary history. The primary endocannabinoid, anandamide—which was only identified in 1992—is integral in the body's self-regulation. Without it the body would not be able to start and stop many processes. We would basically turn to a pile of burnt, used-up mush.


Researchers have shown that cannabinoids act as neuroprotectants and actually aid in the growth of new brain cells. Cannabinoids even play a role in halting brain damage. When the brain isn't getting enough oxygen, all sorts of chemical bedlam ensues and cells basically start self-destructing like a bunch of tiny Porsches in neutral pushing 9000 RPMs. Part of this breakdown causes cells to release calcium into neuron pathways. When the calcium is released, it short circuits the neuron pathways. Only when CB receptors are activated during this critical time can this outpouring of calcium be stopped. While it's near-impossible to administer cannabinoids in the midst of a stroke or during suffocation, cannabinoids can intervene in cases where brain damage occurs over a prolonged time span.

Cannabinoids can also thwart cancerous tumors. When CB receptors on the surface of a tumor are activated, the tumor will stop growing and extracting nutrients from the body. In the case of osteoporosis, cannabinoids inhibit the production of osteoclasts--cells that break down and weaken bones. As CB receptors can be found in every tissue and organ system of the body, it seems the more we look, the more we find cannabinoids capable of prompting yet another incredible immune system or self-preservation response.

There are five main cannabinoids found in the cannabis currently cultivated around the world. THC, CBD, CBG, THCV, and CBC. In addition to these five, there are another 80 or so that occur in much lower concentrations. The ratios of these cannabinoids varies across the many strains that occur throughout the world. While THC, and CBD have been the object of much research it is still unclear how CBG, and CBC affect us. Some experts believe that they may mediate the effects of other cannabinoids. THC produces the psychedelic affects most commonly associated with marijuana. CBD on the other hand seems to have a more distinct effect on immune responses.

Terpenoids and Phenols combine in the plant to form CBG. CBG is the fundamental cannabinoid, and is transformed into the others by enzymes and degradations. Most plants have a rather uniform concentration of cannabinoids, but the ratio of those cannabinoids varies greatly. It is the ratio of the cannabinoids that plays the largest determining factor in the effects of the plant. Historically plants have been bred for high THC content, and archaeological evidence shows that this selective breeding dates back to before the common era in China and India.

Many growers and dispensaries have recently begun focusing on strains high in CBD. This is the first time that cannabis plants--aside from hemp--are being bred for anything other than THC. We've only recently discovered the effects of CBD through advances in science and medicine. Since the results of 40 or so years of THC-selective breeding—albeit without the use of testing to monitor the chemical results of the breeding—have yielded compelling results, it will be interesting to see where we go from here. Through the minimal amount of research carried out over the last 60 years we have discovered the scientific basis for curing a great many ailments: cancer, diabetes, alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, depression, and ADD, just to name a few. Historically, cannabis has been used to treat an incredible number of diseases. But, it's only now with growing acceptance--and the desire for testing--that we're finding the quantitative proof. After thousands of years using cannabis, it's only in the last 20 or 30 years that mankind has really begun to grasp cannabinoids.