Can cannabis put you on path to better health?

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Medical cannabis users anxious over supply shortages

Joe is an ordinary guy. And Joe is a smoker.

He doesn’t want to smoke. He’s read the government statistics that say he’s among nearly 38 million Americans who smoke and that the habit causes some 480,000 deaths a year.

He’s tried to stop, and he’s failed.

But there may be hope, and that hope may come in the form of cannabis.

At least that was a thesis put forth in 2013 by a team of British researchers. In a study conducted at University College London, the team – part of the university’s Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit – asked participants to use CBD (or cannabidiol) inhalers whenever they felt the urge to smoke.

Cannabidiol, it should be noted, is the major non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabis sativa, the plant from which marijuana is derived.

While trial subjects who were given placebos ended up smoking the same number of cigarettes a week, those treated with CBD reduced their cigarette consumption by 40 percent.

The verdict: According to the researchers, the use of CBD as a “potential treatment for nicotine addiction … warrants further exploration.”

And, of course, that’s the problem. The federal government continues to list cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, relegating it to the same category as cocaine and heroin. And because of this, federal monies for cannabis research remain limited.

Yet the situation seems to be changing. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency recently gave the Canadian firm Tilray Inc. approval to import cannabis into the U.S. for drug research. One main research question: to see if cannabis can effectively treat “essential tremor,” a neurological disorder that affects some 4 percent of people over the age of 65.

And that’s only the beginning. According to Bloomberg News, Tilray is running studies to see how well cannabis can be used to treat such ailments as post-traumatic stress disorder, chemotherapy-caused nausea, side effects of certain cancers and Dravet syndrome (described as “a rare form of pediatric epilepsy”).

Catherine Johnson, Tilray’s director of clinical research, told Bloomberg News that the DEA approval shows a belief is growing “that these cannabinoids may be effective at treating a number of diseases that people hadn’t thought of before.”

So much for diseases. But what about personal vices? We’ve already seen evidence that some forms of cannabis can help smokers quit that habit. What about drinking?

In 2004 the late Dr. Tod H. Mikuriya, a psychiatrist, cannabis researcher and author, theorized that cannabis use can indeed help those who abuse alcohol. Mikuriya conducted a study that involved 92 cannabis users and, he reported, “All patients reported benefit, indicating that for at least a subset of alcoholics, cannabis use is associated with reduced drinking.”

What about hard drugs, such as those that the federal government lumps cannabis with? Earlier this year the Scripps Research Institute published the results of a preclinical study that involved applying a gel containing CBD once a day to the skin of rats; the results indicated that the treatment reduces the risk of relapse by alcohol and drug addicts.

Studies have shown that CBD can be effective in curbing the urge to overeat. A 2012 study done at the University of Reading in Berkshire, England, showed that rats given some strains of CBD showed less interest in food.

Here’s the caveat in all this: Much about the supposed palliative powers of cannabis, at least in terms of offsetting harmful addictions, is still speculative. Or anecdotal. Preclinical studies in particular typically involve rats, not humans. What’s called for is still more research.

Yet some practitioners are already convinced. The physician Peter Grinspoon stated his point of view in the Jan. 15 edition of the Harvard University Health Blog.

“I often hear complaints from other doctors that there isn’t adequate evidence to recommend medical marijuana,” Grinspoon wrote, “but there is even less scientific evidence for sticking our heads in the sand.”

Or in a cloud of smoke.

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