Health, Cannabis and Vaporizers – A Complex Medical and Legal Minefield

That cannabis is a powerful healing plant would not have been debated in ancient and Eastern civilizations. The contribution that it should or shouldn’t play in our struggle for mental and physical health is one of the most volatile topics in 21st Century medicine. It’s a battle that herbal vaporizer technology has entered decisively.

Catching up with the Ancients

In it’s natural form, cannabis is one of the safest therapeutic substances known to man. Its use has been documented for thousands of years from China to Egypt to Stone Age Europe, it featured strongly in medicinal tinctures until the 20th century repression, and is still an integral ingredient in Indian ayurvedic medicine.

Western scientific research has been wheel clamped by politicians and prohibitionists for decades. But interest is rapidly being renewed, spurred on by the positive testimonials from medical cannabis patients and their physicians along with an emerging understanding of the role the body’s own cannabinoids play in mental and physical health, pain perception and memory formation.

New Emphasis on the Positive

It’s not so long ago that the debate about marijuana and health consisted of advocates spending all their time debunking spurious negative propaganda (it caused cancer, sterility, madness and degeneracy).

However, unlike previous pseudo-scientific campaigns that attempted to link pot smoking with a litany of cognitive abnormalities, modern research suggests what many cannabis enthusiasts have speculated all along: ganja is good for you.

As The Economist – not known for its hippie outlook – noted back in 2006: “If cannabis were unknown, and bio-prospectors were suddenly to find it in some remote mountain crevice, its discovery would no doubt be hailed as a medical breakthrough. Scientists would praise its potential for treating everything from pain to cancer, and marvel at its rich pharmacopoeia—many of whose chemicals mimic vital molecules in the human body.”

A Natural Chemical Plant

It was only in the 1960s that the constituent of the cannabis plant THC was discovered which causes the ‘high’ produced by it (Gaoni &Mechoulam,1964).

This Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, to give it its full name (also known under the international non-proprietary name: dronabinol), is the best-known active ingredient of cannabis, and with the non-psychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) the most used for medical purposes. But by no means are they the only ones.

The plant Cannabis sativa produces over 421 chemical compounds, including about 80 terpeno-phenol compounds named phytocannabinoids that have not been detected in any other plant. These chemicals activate receptor molecules in the human body by mimicking substances – the endocannabinoids – that attach to the surfaces of some nerve cells and stimulate changes in biochemical activity.

Cannabis & Homeostatic Balance

At the 2004 Cannabis Therapeutics Conference, Dr. Robert Melamede from the University of Colorado explained how the Endocannabinoid System functions as a “Global Homeostatic Regulator”, balancing several organ systems: cardiovascular, endocrine, nervous, excretory, digestive, immunological, musculoskeletal, reproductive, and respiratory.

Not only does this ubiquity explain the huge range of medical applications; it also suggests that cannabinoids and endocannabinoids are represent a medicinal treasure trove waiting to be discovered.

New Medical Round Up

In January 2011, the US National Organization for the Reform of Marihuana Laws

(NORML) published the Fourth Edition of its popular and comprehensive booklet Emerging Clinical Applications for Cannabis & Cannabinoids: A Review of the Recent Scientific Literature.

The report reviews around 200 newly published scientific studies assessing the safety and efficacy of marijuana and its compounds in the treatment and management of 19 clinical indications, from Alzheimer’s disease, chronic pain and diabetes mellitus, to hepatitis C, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and multiple sclerosis.

The picture painted by NORMLs report is of a safe and widely applicable medicine that is effective in many conditions (e.g. neuropathic pain, depression) that have proved stubbornly intractable to western medicine.

Moreover, much of the clinical research that has been done (most of it outside the US) has reached its conclusions with stricter conditions and more data points than required by the FDA for mainstream drug approval.

Exciting Medical Applications

In fact, to date 190 conditions have been reported as benefitting from cannabis therapy.

For example, the best-established palliative effect of cannabinoids in cancer patients is the inhibition of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Patients on medication for HIV use it for the same reason (see our medical blog)

But cannabis does not just treat symptoms, in vitro experiments and experiments on animals have shown that its active agents inhibit tumor growth in cancers of the breast, prostate and skin, as well as glioma (brain tumor), leukemia and lymphoma.

George Kunos, scientific director at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, called cannabinoids “one of the hottest areas in neuroscience.” Science magazine (Oct. 3 2003) found cannabinoids, may play a role in keeping excitable neurons in the brain from becoming fatally over-stimulated in brain trauma victims.

And Dr. Giovanni Marsicano, of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany found that cannabinoids could play a role in treating bipolar disorder, ADHD and depression, along with pathologies such as Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Lou Gehrig’s and Parkinson’s disease.

A ‘Catch 22’ of Objections

Nonetheless, many countries (obviously the science-averse USA, but many more sensible ones such as Ireland and Sweden) still refuse point blank – for blatantly political reasons – to acknowledge that this wonder plant has any medical value whatsoever.

The US Food and Drug Administration have repeatedly shown that ideology can bend almost anything to its will. Most recently in 2010, the FDA claimed that “no sound scientific studies” supported the medical use of the drug – flatly contradicting a 1999 review by the Institute of Medicine (part of the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s most prestigious scientific advisory agency).

Under the guise of being “anti-drugs”, US agencies have created a Catch 22 situation: “We can say that this has no medical benefit because no tests have been done, and then we refuse to let you do any tests.

Obama’s Broken Promise

Politics always trumps science, despite the Obama White House issuing it’s ‘Scientific Integrity’ memorandum stating, “Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration.”

This came just months after the American Medical Association called for “facilitating … clinical research and [the] development of cannabinoid-based medicines” after which pro-cannabis advocates hoped that it would stimulate the commencement of long-overdue human studies into the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis.

Those hopes were snuffed, however, when a representative from the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the agency that oversees 85 percent of the world’s research on controlled substances, reaffirmed their longstanding ‘no medi-pot’ policy. “As the NIDA, our focus is primarily on the negative consequences of marijuana use,” a spokesperson declared in 2010.

The US is retarding research

Marijuana may make some people suffering the pain of chronic illness “feel better,” but it is not and never will be “medicine,” says Drug Czar John Walters, Director of the US National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

At the forefront of scientific research in so many areas, federal obstruction of research has made the U.S. lag far behind many countries in the field of cannabinoid medicine. How much has prohibition against cannabis stymied research? The world may never know. International treaties have made the plant illegal everywhere, but attitudes vary across nations.

The THC molecule and the cannabinoid receptor were first identified in Israel. Links between cannabinoids and Alzheimer’s were established in Spain. Work on THC’s inhibition of atherosclerosis appeared in Switzerland, and the Netherlands is another outpost of sanity.

Smoking Objections

Leaving aside the huge issue of who benefits from cannabis’s illegality, the purely healthcare-related problem is that smoking anything cannot be seen as healthful.

Commenting on an FDA statement that it had not approved smoked marijuana as a treatment for any condition or disease indication, Walters stated, “Our national medical system relies on proven scientific research, not popular opinion. To date, science and research have not determined that smoking a crude plant is safe or effective.”

Yet what patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer — and their doctors — have known for a long time is that the drug gives them medicinal benefits over and above the medications they are already receiving, and despite the fact that the smoke has risks. That is probably why several studies show that many doctors recommend smoking cannabis to their patients, even though they are unable to prescribe it.

The FDA’s statement emphasizes that it is smoked marijuana that has not gone through the process necessary to make it a prescription drug. It’s an important emphasis because it leaves the door open for the agency to approve other methods of delivery.

Teas, Pills, Cookies & Sprays

Perhaps the only valid objection to the medical use of marijuana is that, when burned, its smoke contains many of the harmful things found in tobacco smoke, such as tar, cyanide and carbon monoxide.

Rather than smoking, some use cannabis buds and leaves to make tea or cakes for consumption. But this means that the active agents are metabolized by the liver rather than entering the bloodstream unaltered. The effects are also slow to come on and dosage can be hit-and-miss.

Others have focused on extracting active ingredients and delivering them alone in a pill or oral spray. However, many think that the isolated ingredients are not as effective as the whole plant, thanks to synergistic combination of its (trace) elements.

Vaporizers change the debate

The smoking argument was the closest thing to a scientifically meaningful objection to medical marijuana. While marijuana smoke, unlike tobacco, has never been shown to cause lung cancer, heavy marijuana smoking has been associated with assorted respiratory symptoms and a potentially increased risk of bronchitis. That’s because burning any plant material produces a whole lot of substances such as tars, and carbon monoxide that are not good for the lungs.

But new research demonstrates that all those fears of “smoked marijuana” as medicine are 100 percent obsolete, with the advent of reliable herbal vaporizers.

Vaporization is a technology designed to deliver inhaled cannabinoids while avoiding the respiratory hazards of smoking by heating cannabis to a temperature where therapeutically active cannabinoid vapors are produced, but below the point of combustion where noxious pyrolytic byproducts are formed.

Cannabinoids vaporize at temperatures over 185°C (365°F) and form an aerosol with an average droplet size of 0.64 µm (micrometer) that can be inhaled and respired. The droplets are absorbed in the alveoli of the lungs and enter the bloodstream (systemic absorption). When cannabinoids are inhaled, the onset of the effect takes approx. 1-2 min. and the effects lasts for 2-4 hours.

Vape benefits Scientifically Proven

Since 2004, a number of studies have been undertaken to evaluate the efficacy of the Volcano herbal Vaporizer, made by Stolz & Bickel in Germany. With its sturdy ‘lab equipment’ construction, accurate temperature gauge and convenient balloon vapor collection, the Volcano has been the most used vaporizer in research labs.

Using sophisticated analysis by various chromatography and spectrometry techniques it has been confirmed that the delivery efficiency of vaporization compares favorably to that of marijuana cigarettes. The vapor consisted overwhelmingly of cannabinoids, with trace amounts of three other compounds. In contrast, over 111 compounds were identified in the combusted smoke.

The results indicate that vaporization can deliver therapeutic doses of cannabinoids with a drastic reduction in pyrolytic smoke compounds. Vaporization therefore appears to be an attractive alternative to smoked marijuana for future medical cannabis studies.

See our exclusive interview with Dr. Arno Hazekamp from Leiden University, one of the world’s leading cannabis vaporizer researchers for a detailed look at academic vaporizer research.

Other Health & Vape Applications

Another issue regarding vaporizers is that they can also vaporize tobacco to release the taste and nicotine hit without any of the tars and toxins you get with smoking.

Indeed, any dried herb can be used in a vaporizer to release its essential compounds, and especially in Germany, a whole new herbal remedy paradigm using such plants as eucalyptus, lavender and sage is gaining popularity.

Using a vaporizer to reduce and hopefully eliminate tobacco smoking is the subject of our other main blog. This will also touch on other herbal vapors and their uses.

Mapping Cannabinoid uses

This is all very encouraging. But it does not address the wider question of which cannabinoids are doing what. From a scientific standpoint, cannabis is a very “dirty” drug. All those compounds, 60 or so of which affect the body’s cannabinoid system, makes it difficult for researchers to accurately pinpoint marijuana’s effects.

What’s the best strain for a headache? Nausea? Insomnia? We don’t know. To find out, researchers need to be able to do their own plant-breeding programs. In America, this is impossible. But it is happening in other countries.

In 1997, for example, the British government asked Dr. Geoffrey Guy, the executive chairman and founder of GW Pharmaceuticals, to come up with a program to develop cannabis into a pharmaceutical product.

GW has assembled a “library” of more than 300 varieties of cannabis, and obtained plant-breeder’s rights on between 30 and 40 of these. It has found the genes that control cannabinoid production and can specify within strict limits the seven or eight cannabinoids it is most interested in. And it knows how to crossbreed its strains to get the mixtures it wants.

In 2004 the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain published an authoritative review of the development of cannabis-based medicines and their applications in a wide range of therapeutic areas. The Medicinal Uses of Cannabis and Cannabinoids, edited by Dr. Guy.

Beyond Health to Wellbeing

Even inhaling the full spectrum of dozens of complex molecules is a contradictory paradigm and therefore a challenge to the ‘scalpels, white powders and patented pills’ that Western medicine sees as the only legitimate model.

But as we continue to sort through the emerging science of cannabis and cannabinoids, one thing remains clear: a functional cannabinoid system is essential for health. 
From embryonic implantation in our mother’s uterus, to nursing and growth, to responding to injuries, endocannabinoids help us survive in a quickly changing and increasingly hostile environment.

NORML’S report featured a section authored by osteopath and medical cannabis specialist Dr. Dustin Sulak, highlighting the significance of the endocannabinoid system and its role in maintaining mental and physiological health.

“Can an individual enhance his/her cannabinoid system by taking supplemental cannabis?” pondered Sulak. “Beyond treating symptoms, beyond even curing disease, can cannabis help us prevent disease and promote health by stimulating an ancient system that is hard-wired into all of us? I now believe the answer is yes.”

In the meantime, take a look at this inspiring and informative documentary,


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