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We Know Less About Marijuana Than We Think — Here Are The Biggest Mysteries Researchers Are Trying To Solve

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We Know Less About Marijuana Than We Think — Here Are The Biggest Mysteries Researchers Are Trying To Solve

Shared by: Mark Leibovit | leibovitvrnewsletters.com

Marijuana is easier to access than ever, with more than 20% of Americans living in a state that has voted to legalize recreational use — and a majority living in states that have legalized medical use.

But when you talk to researchers who study cannabis, they say there’s still a lot we don’t know about marijuana.
There are a few big studies happening right now that should for the first time offer some answers to essential questions.
In many ways, it’s the age of access to pot.

As of last November, more than 20% of Americans live in states that have voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. A majority live in states that allow access to medical marijuana.

In Colorado, cannabis aficionados can attend $125 per person dinners, where multiple varieties of weed are paired with chef-prepared gourmet meals. In New York — a state with a relatively strict medical marijuana law — 98-year-olds like Ruth Brunn rely on cannabis oil to soothe the debilitating pains of neuropathy. Weed’s more legally accessible now than it has been since the “Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s; the varieties available now, created with the aid of modern botany and chemistry, are unparalleled in history.

With that in mind you might think that scientific researchers would have a pretty good handle on exactly how regular or casual marijuana use affects humans, how medical marijuana should be best used, and what potential risks there may be to cannabis use.

But if you thought that the recent warming towards marijuana is fully backed by scientific understanding, you might be surprised.

“There are so many basic questions that need to be addressed,” says Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor of psychiatry who researches marijuana at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “The practical use and legalization of these things is happening faster than the science can keep up.”

Vandrey and a number of other experts interviewed by Business Insider say that even though we know far more about marijuana than we did just a few decades ago, there are important topics — ranging from questions about how marijuana affects the brains of different users to questions about how to make use of medical cannabis — where the legal policy has far outpaced the science. It’s not about being anti- or pro-marijuana, it’s simply that scientists want to know more — especially now, when it’s such an important topic because of the wave of legalization.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) considers marijuana a drug with no medical value, so it’s hard to get approval to research it and impossible to study the cannabis products most people use, since researchers can only give study participants cannabis grown at DEA-approved facilities. “It’s pretty amazing” that we have so many unanswered questions, says Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital. “It ain’t new, it’s been around for thousands and thousands of years, it’s not like we just made this in a lab.”

Many of the most common inquiries fit into three categories: questions about how recreational marijuana will affect users both young and old; questions about how medical marijuana affects patients; and questions about the marijuana plant itself.

And while marijuana is still distressingly hard to research, there are a number of ongoing studies that should help answer some of the most pressing questions.

Here’s what we’re learning from that research and what we still need to know.

A sacred plant, a casual vice, a risky drug, or a powerful medicine — what’s in the plant?
The cannabis plant itself is a fascinating organism, one that humanity has used for thousands of years for reasons ranging from religious rituals to performance enhancement to just plain partying.

But within that plant there are somewhere around 400 chemical compounds, more than 60 of which are special compounds known as cannabinoids. These bond with a relatively recently discovered system in our brain that interacts with naturally-produced cannabinoids. In every animal, these natural (endogenous) cannabinoids play multiple roles, affecting mood, appetite, memory, consciousness, pain response, blood pressure, and more. The cannabinoids from marijuana tap into that same system, which is why the plant has such wide-ranging effects.

We’re pretty far from fully understanding how that system works and even further from understanding all the compounds in marijuana.

Common and uncommon cannabinoids

The most famous cannabinoid, THC, is largely responsible for marijuana’s ability to get users high. Cannabidiol, CBD, is the next best known — it seems to be important for many medical uses of marijuana. In one of the studies that Gruber’s team is working on at the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) center at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, researchers are testing to see if CBD can help reduce anxiety. It also plays a role in pain relief and several of the other known medical uses of marijuana.

But those are still just two components of the plant.

“We know a lot about THC and we’re starting to learn about CBD,” says Vandrey. “Out of about 400 [compounds]we know a decent amount about two.”

Continue reading this article at businessinsider.com

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