Joint Effort: Scientists Work to Discover if Medical Marijuana Works, or if Doctors are Just Blowing Smoke

Medical Marijuana refers to the use of Cannabis to treat symptoms of illness or other physical and mental disabilities. Despite recent adoption of the drug as a means of medicating in many US states, it is still federally classified as a Schedule 1 drug; defined as a substance with no currently accepted medical use, and high potential for abuse. This places the plant in the same category as socially disapproved and dangerous drugs, such as Heroin and Meth. However, an argument has gained momentum that the drug can treat, and even cure a variety of ailments ranging from anxiety, all the way to cancer. US states are divided on whether this argument holds truth or not, but a deeper analysis on what the drug is doing to your mind provides insight.

Cannabinoids are chemical compounds secreted by the cannabis plant that affect the user’s brain chemistry and gives them the “high” feeling associated with the drug. They achieve this effect by imitating compounds that our bodies naturally produce, called endocannabinoids. These endocannabinoids regulate the body’s stability and health, and mediate communication between cells. While this information can be construed to shine a positive light on the use of marijuana, the addition of synthetic cannabinoids to the endocannabinoid system can disrupt the degrative enzymes which regulate the body’s level of endocannabinoids, according to this in-depth research paper. Disruption of this degradative enzyme, known as monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), causes an increased amount of an endocannabinoid called 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Increased levels of 2-AG cause the brain’s cannabinoid receptors to be desensitized, which can alter the user’s brain chemistry even further, and oppose the desired effects of the drug use. While this may sound like I’m just throwing around some big science terms, this event is just an application of what we learned in class about the function of enzymes.

If there is no real evidence supporting the medical use of marijuana, why is legal for medical in 32 states? While the drug has no proven connections to improving brain chemistry or physical condition, it is considered a reliable form of pain relief. A functioning neurotransmitter called anandamide works by sending chemical messages between nerve cells throughout the body’s entire nervous system. Due to its function as a neurotransmitter, Anandamide is able to affect the brain’s areas pertaining to pleasure, memory, thinking, concentration, movement, coordination, and sensory/time perception. Due to their similar structure, THC (a cannabinoid found in marijuana) is able to attach to molecules called cannabinoid receptors, which are found on neurons. This affects many areas of the brain, primarily for this topic, the Hippocampus and Orbitofrontal Cortex. The altered neurons cause bodily effects including decreased reaction time, an increase in dopamine (the body’s “reward system”), and an overall decrease in the body’s senses. This effectively decreases the symptoms of chronic pain, similar to how opioids achieve this effect. The principal motive for allowing medical use of marijuana is the fact that you can’t overdose on it, as opposed to opioids. Many states believe that marijuana is a great alternative to opioids for pain relief, because of the rising number of opioid-induced overdoses. While medical marijuana is not a great way to treat an ailment, it is a relatively safer alternative for pain relief as opposed to opioids. If you are searching for a promising cure-all, keep searching. If you are of legal age and looking for a solution for chronic pain, there is a possibility that this drug could help you.

About Mr. Mohn

Biology Teacher

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