What is medical cannabis?
Learn about the therapeutic properties of the cannabis plant and if it might be relevant for you
Medical Cannabis interacts with your body's natural endocannabinoid system
Cannabis has been used for thousands of years as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions. Today, it is filling an urgent need for a safe and effective treatment alternative, where conventional medications fail. The plant's compounds (so called cannabinoids) interact with our body's natural endocannabinoid system (ECS), which manages several functions, such as pain, mood, sleep and appetite. Many doctors have not been taught about the ECS and are often unfamiliar or sceptical about it, in addition to the confusing world of a new industry that consolidates medical cannabis under the umbrella of street cannabis, hemp and CBD oil. However with the change in regulation across the world, we see an increasingly better understanding of medical cannabis and growing clinical and anecdotal evidence that show the positive impact it could have in managing chronic conditions. We’re here to support you to discover, explore and learn about medical cannabis and to provide you with a new perspective.
What is Medical Cannabis?
Medical cannabis (or medical marijuana as it is also known) is derived from the cannabis plant and bred to specifically to use the plant’s therapeutic properties to treat a number of chronic conditions. The plant contains over 100 compounds that are called cannabinoids and mimic the naturally occurring cannabinoids found within the human body. The most common and abundant cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). There is increasing research and clinical evidence indicating that these compounds could help to relief the symptoms of many chronic conditions. The therapeutic and pain-relieving properties of medical cannabis are the reason why increasing numbers of people consider it as alternative treatment for their ailments.
The Endocannabinoid System (ECS)
Medical cannabis contains over 100 different cannabinoids, which interact with the body's natural endocannabinoid system (ECS). The ECS is a complex cell-signalling system in the human body which helps to regulate functions such as sleep, pain, mood, and appetite. It’s primary function is to ensure your body stays in homeostasis or balance. If the stability of your internal environment is thrown off by injury or fever for example, this will lead to your ECS responding to help your body to return to its natural balance. The ECS involves three core components: endocannabinoids, receptors, and enzymes. Endocannabinoids are molecules made by our bodies and help keep certain bodily functions running smoothly. They bind to receptors that are found throughout your whole body to signal that the ECS needs to act. And enzymes break down endocannabinoids once they’ve carried out their function. The two main endocannabinoid receptors are CB1 (found in the central nervous system) and CB2 found in the peripheral nervous system, especially immune cells. Endocannabinoids might target CB1 receptors in a spinal nerve to relieve pain, while others might bind to a CB2 receptor in your immune cells to signal that your body’s experiencing inflammation, a common sign of autoimmune disorders. The plant cannabinoids found in cannabis can interact with the ECS and therefore have the potential to impact bodily functions that the ECS controls, including appetite, metabolism, nerve function, pain, inflammation, mood, brain function and cardiovascular system function. While evidence and research of the interaction between the ECS and medical cannabis is growing, most doctors are not yet considering it as a valid alternative treatment possibility for chronic conditions. We are here to bridge this gap and can mediate the conversation with your doctor.
Hemp products, CBD oil and medical cannabis
Thanks to its many therapeutic properties, public awareness for cannabis has dramatically increased. And while this a good development, the market can often be confusing for patients due to the many different terms used. It is important to understand that not all products are the same. In Australia the regulation is very clear, if you haven't received a prescription from your doctor for medical cannabis, the product you obtained is not medical cannabis.
For thousands of years humans have grown, harvested and used cannabis plants for a variety of uses including clothes, nutrition and medicine. Over that time, multiple strains of the plant have been developed, some more fibrous, whereas others with more medicinal qualities. Hemp falls into the first category, which is very fibrous, with limited to no therapeutic properties. Hemp oil is made from the seeds of the plant, and although it has nutritional properties, it contains no (or very little) of the active compounds that make medical cannabis suitable for the treatment of chronic conditions.
CBD oil is often an undefined term that companies intentionally or unintentionally use to describe cannabis-derived products, in order to benefit from increasing patient interest. Some refer to hemp oil, which can have trace amounts of CBD in them, and some sell CBD oil over the internet claiming specific amounts of CBD. However due to the unregulated nature of these channels (typically online), it is impossible to verify whether these products have the therapeutic qualities they claim. It is further not clear how these products were produced, and what other ingredients they contain. They are therefore illegal products (similar to street cannabis), which are not regulated and potentially harmful to patients. In particular, they should not be used for the treatment of severe chronic conditions.
Medical cannabis contains high concentrations of pharmaceutically active cannabinoids, which are provided in specific and consistent composition to ensure suitability for specific conditions. Due to the varying information available, also doctors can be misinformed and unfamiliar with medical cannabis. If you consider medical cannabis as a potential treatment alternative, we can help you to talk to your doctor to derive an educated decision.
The difference to street and home-grown products
Unfortunately, misperception and lack of knowledge still leads many patients to source cannabis illicitly from the back market or to grow their own. It is therefore important to understand the differences between medical cannabis and street or home-grown cannabis. The main differentiations relate to composition of the product, its level of purity and delivery method.
The cannabis plant has over 100 different cannabinoids which include cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahdrocannabinol (THC). Medical cannabis is grown in a controlled environment which regulates, soil, water, light, and nutrients of the plants to increase the amount of the most useful cannabinoids and reduce less effective or harmful chemicals. Moreover, it provides stability and consistency of output, meaning that every batch will have the same composition of cannabinoids and therefore the same effect and dosing can be maintained for patients.
With street or home-grown cannabis, we can’t be sure of the strength, the mix of chemicals it contains and therefore suitability for a specific condition. Street cannabis is typically bred with a recreational focus in mind, hence being stronger in the psychoactive ingredient THC, while in a medical context CBD is the more relevant component for most conditions.
The strict conditions under which medical cannabis is produced and regulated further ensure that it does not include harmful impurities such as bacteria, heavy metals, mould or pesticides. Each batch is being lab-tested against a long list of potentially harmful substances, before it can be approved for distribution. Unlike street-sourced cannabis which may have been diluted or have microbial contamination since the the growing conditions are unknown and unregulated.
Medical cannabis is predominantly consumed orally as oil, spray or capsules, which leads to a longer and more gradual relief of symptoms throughout the day, suitable for most chronic conditions. The extraction process that is required to transform cannabis into liquids is complex and not relevant to illicit cannabis which is typically provided in dried form to be smoked. But not only does smoking provide a shorter relief period, it also makes it particularly harmful because at least 50 of the same carcinogenic substances as tobacco are being inhaled directly into the lungs.
Besides the product specific differences, most importantly medical cannabis is legal and therefore available through your trusted doctor. This means the product type, strength and dose that are prescribed take into account your medical history and individual situation. It further allows for close monitoring of the effects and gradual adjustments until your optimal dose has been identified. While currently not PBS subsidised, the cost of medical cannabis (monthly average AU$150-300) are in most cases below the average amount patients pay for illicit cannabis. If you are considering medical cannabis for the treatment of your condition, we can help you to make the first step and initiate the conversation with your doctor