Regardless of the smoldering controversy cannabis stirs up in Sacramento City Hall, the state Capitol and Washington D.C., the global scientific community has examined the drug with increasing interest recently. Local patients and doctors can't say enough about the groundbreaking potential of THC as a pharmaceutical.
Cannabis is handled at Oaksterdam University in Oakland.
There's a fairly large medical cannabis community in Sacramento, of patients, caregivers and researchers. Some dispensaries work directly with patients and doctors to bridge the gap between medical knowledge and social support.
Sacramento resident Thomas Coy has worked with the Capitol Wellness dispensary since it opened in 2004. He's a patient, an activist and a 28-year survivor of HIV/AIDS.
"Cannabis has helped me tremendously," he said. "I've been on medical programs and trials since 1983."
Cannabis allows Coy to cope with and overcome many symptoms of the virus. Smoking four joints a day helps prevent seizure, relieve nausea, fight pneumonia and stimulate his appetite.
"If it wasn't for medical marijuana, I'd be dead," Coy said. "Doctors say I'm a living miracle."
Despite a condition that many would find disabling, Coy keeps an active lifestyle and leads Cap Wellness support groups. Last week, Coy's HIV/AIDS group took a camping and whitewater rafting trip.
Coy counsels patients both socially and legally, and has worked for many years with the patients' rights advocacy group Americans for Safe Access. He has testified numerous times on behalf of federally-raided patients and clubs.
"I get out there and I raise my voice," he said. "I say 'this is medicine, hands off it.'"
Patients like Coy are a common sight at dispensaries and rallies, fighting for their rights to medicate for AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibermyalgia, glaucoma... the list goes on.
Medical studies on cannabis took a long time to evolve, and Dr. Frank Lucido was there to watch.
Dr. Lucido speaks on behalf of a patient at a 2004 press conference.
Frank Lucido has been a general family practice doctor for 30 years. Since cannabis was legalized for medical use in 1996, he has been an outspoken and highly regarded supporter of herbal medicine. He spoke with The Sacramento Press to offer medical perspective on the drug.
"I started getting into it right away after it was legal," he said. "Every doctor knows they have about 20 slam-dunk patients that could benefit greatly from medical cannabis."
While Lucido was getting his M.D. in the '70s, doctors weren't learning about cannabis, aside from its reportedly high potential for abuse.
"The dangers of cannabis we knew were overblown," he said. "All of us saw people using cannabis in med school and still performing extremely well."
Once California's medical cannabis legalization measure, Proposition 215, got on the ballot, Lucido's interest was piqued. He had heard rumors that cannabis had some vague medical benefits and began checking out studies on what exactly cannabis did.
"There's still a lot we don't know, but we do know there are at least 70 reactive cannabinoids as well as many CBDs," he said.
A cannabis flower under an electron microscope.
Cannabinoids are essentially the 'stuff' in cannabis that gets people high. They're a family of chemicals that mimic a substance that the human brain naturally produces, a cannabinoid known as anandamide. There are receptors for anandamide throughout the body and brain. There's a wide variety of cannabinoids in cannabis, but most are concentrated into delta-9 tetrahydracannabinol, known colloqually as THC. More background on THC can be found at 3dchem.com.
Generally speaking, the more THC, the more potent the cannabis, at least for its relaxing properties. THC can be used as a sleep aid, pain suppressant, anti-inflammatory, anti-convulsant, appetite stimulant, muscle relaxant and - perhaps most commonly known - as an anti-depressant.
CBD is an acronym for cannabidiol, a family of substances in cannabis that are a bit of unexplored territory. In ongoing research, CBDs have been found to have anti-viral and even anti-tumor properties. Yes, this means that cannabis may help to prevent cancer, according to recent UCLA studies.
"It was announced about two or three years ago that cannabis didn't increase the risk of cancer, and it was briefly stated that certain doses might even be protective," Lucido said. Several other studies that have successfully used cannabis to shrink tumors in mice have been ignored despite their results, according to Lucido.
It's popular wisdom that it is impossible to overdose on cannabis, as the estimated lethal dosage adds up to smoking 1,500 pounds in 15 minutes. Yet, as it turns out, even if you took in a lethal dose (with Janis Joplin's lungs and Willie Nelson's stash), you'd still survive. Interestingly, there aren't cannabinoid receptors in the medulla oblongata, the part of your brain that controls breathing and other vital functions.
"That means that someone who smokes a fatal dose may be very sleepy, but they wouldn't die," Lucido said.
Although impossible to die from any dose of cannabis, smoking pot does carry other side effects. There's one major one — the side effect that isn't a side effect: Getting high. The psychoactive effect of cannabis can be either a euphoria (pleasant) or a dysphoria (unpleasant); some people enjoy it, others don't. If they turn to cannabis for relief from serious illness, however, dysphoric patients can get over their dislike and even become immune to the 'stoned' effect, something many sources have noted.
Cannabis can also be a mild lung irritant, but that can be avoided by eating a pot brownie or using a vaporizer.
The THC-laden trichromes of an individual leaf.
Given the wide potential of cannabis' medical usage, it is still fairly uncommon for doctors to make regular recommendations for patients to use the drug.
"Most doctors are hesitant to recommend cannabis because of two reasons," Lucido said. "Either they don't know about its medical properties or they're afraid of the medical board and law enforcement. I keep myself to a very high standard and I was still investigated by the medical board."
Lucido, a private practice doctor, said that he screens his patients by asking for corroborating evidence of their condition. He quizzes any applicants under the age of 21 with two questions. First: "Are you living at home?" Second: "Are you hiding it from your parents?" He said this sifts out about 90 percent of young applicants.
While cannabis can have remarkable effects on the lives of people living with terminal disease, those cases are fairly rare. More commonly, patients seek treatment for mental tension and physical pain. A survey of Lucido's 1,045 patients in 2008 found that 61% medicated for chronic pain, 7% for anxiety, 6% for migraines, 4.4% for gastrointestinal disorders (indigestion, nausea, anorexia), and 3.4% for depression. Many other disorders take up the last 18%.
New studies consistently point out new uses for cannabis medication, as the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) continues to conduct research throughout the state on THC's effects on everything from spinal cord injury to MS muscle disorders. Interestingly, Lucido said he recently heard of another application for the sensual herb: increasing the female libido. While licentious cannabis-smoking females were key plot devices back in the 'Reefer Madness' days, new findings have shown that cannabis' come-hither effects can be used to stimulate a dormant libido.
Scientific exploration of cannabis' medical properties has yielded some promising fruit. Now, with increased local and national attention, research seems likely to keep on growing.
Photos courtesy of AngelJustice.org and David Scharf and Peter Dasil of Corbis