The Evolution of the Science of Cannabis Part 2-Chemistry

Second installment discussing the evolution of our understanding of cannabis chemistry.

By Heather Ritchie, Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine

Last week we talked about the evolution of the science of cannabis and cultivation. This week, we’ll focus on the evolution of the chemistry of the herb. We touched a little on terpenes last week, but we’ll start with a refresher.

Terpenes directly correlate with the effect cannabis has on consumers. Only lab testing identifies the specific terpenes found in a given strain. Private laboratories like Steep Hill Labs, Phylos Bioscience, Green Leaf Lab, and others, offer their testing services to growers so they can identify the chemovars and reliably advise their customers about the product that they are consuming.

Cannabis and the Human Experience

So, how do terpenes impact peoples experience with specific strain types? Cannabis has a complex chemical composition, and its chemical interaction with the nervous system and brain is complicated. “Cannabinoid receptors are the only receptors that bond to the molecules found in cannabis, and they appear to be more abundant than any other neurotransmitter in the brain.”

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a molecule that binds to the receptors so when you ingest it, it imitates an endocannabinoid, anandamide, that our body produces naturally. It’s nicknamed “the bliss molecule” because of the “high” feeling associated with it. When terpenes are present, they alter the way THC interacts with these receptors.

Once a neuron fires, there is a natural occurrence called the refractory period. THC interferes with this period causing the neurons to continuously fire rather than become unresponsive. This magnifies the cell activity, and as a result, amplification of the external and internal mental phenomena intensifies the sights and sounds around you as well as your emotions and thoughts.

Cannabis Chemistry History

Cannabis is a complex plant, containing more than 400 chemical entities, and of those, over 90 are cannabinoid compounds. While cannabis has been used by mankind for thousands of years, our understanding of its pharmacological properties is based on studies beginning in the 19th century.

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, often referred to as the “Father of Marijuana Research,” made the groundbreaking discoveries in the 1960s that proved the medicinal attributes of cannabis. “He’s a respected member of the Academy of Sciences and Humanities and an emeritus professor at Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School, where he still runs a lab. His work spawned a subculture of cannabis research around the globe.”

Mechoulam found it odd that in 1805 we extracted morphine from opium and cocaine from coca leaves in 1855, but marijuana was a mélange of unknown compounds. So, he contacted the Israeli national police and obtained five kilos of illicit Lebanese hashish. He and his fellow scientists isolated substances that they injected into their test subjects, rhesus monkeys. These monkeys are usually aggressive, but calmed down after the injections.

The first compound scientists isolated was cannabinol (CBN). Initially, they incorrectly assumed that it was the primary active compound of the plant that contributed to its infamous psychoactive effects. The second molecule identified was cannabidiol (CBD), discovered in 1963 by Mechoulam and Youval Shvo. In 1964, Mechoulam and Yahiel Gaoni, isolated THC, the primary active compound.

In 1992, continuing his quest to learn more about cannabis, Mechoulam began to focus on the effects it had on the brain instead of the plant itself. That year Mechoulam and his colleagues made an amazing discovery. “They isolated the chemical made by the human body that binds to the same receptor in the brain that THC does.” He called it anandamide which means “supreme joy” in Sanskrit.

Modern Day Science

Since 1992, other endocannabinoids and their corresponding cell receptors have been discovered. Unique to cannabis, cannabinoids are molecules with medicinal and psychoactive properties. Studies have shown, CBD is, in part, responsible for the plants anti-inflammatory, analgesic, bronchodilator, aphrodisiac, anticarcinogen, antifungal, and antibacterial attributes. One 2011 study from UC San Francisco discovered that cannabis is an effective supplement to opiate painkillers that don’t always decrease the pain when taken alone. Also, cannabis doesn’t have the same health risks that opiate painkillers do.

By 1998, Mechoulam and Shimon Ben-Shabat presented the hypothesis that certain natural components found in cannabis like terpenes and cannabinoids, work synergistically to enhance their medicinal benefits. Dr. Mechoulam says that there is still more to learn as we’ve just scratched the surface. He believes that we may well find that cannabinoids connect in some way to all human diseases.

It wasn’t until recently that scientists discovered that the terpenoids and terpenes in other plants were also in cannabis. They are described as five-carbon chain isoprene molecules that are responsible for the herbs medicinal and aromatic properties. David Presti, a professor, psychologist, cognitive scientist, and neurobiologist with UC Berkeley, says that terpene discovery is the newest cannabis research topic.

Continuing Research

As of now, there is no general agreement among researchers about the long-term effects of cannabis use on neurological development. Physicians hesitate to use it as legitimate therapy because of the lack of reliable cannabis literature.

As societal attitudes change and as legislation is created, the hope is that research will be easier to conduct with looser regulations. Regardless, more research is necessary to further understand this enigmatic plant. We know so much now, but cannabis, no doubt, has many more secrets to unlock.

Next week we’ll talk more about cannabis research and education.

To read more, visit terpenesandtesting.com.

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