In spite of decades of politicization and prohibition, cannabis science is beginning to experience a rebirth—so much so that it was the topic of National Geographic’s most recent cover feature.
“We’re finding surprises, and possibly miracles, concealed inside this once forbidden plant,” writes the article’s author, Hampton Sides.
“In the apparent rush to accept weed into the mainstream, to tax and regulate it, to legitimze and commodify it, important questions arise. What’s going on inside this plant? How does marijuana really affect our bodies and our brains? What might the chemicals in it tell us about how our neurological systems function?” Sides asks.
As more and more states legalize the contentious herb, the lack of controlled, scientific research looking into the safety and potential health benefits of marijuana in human subjects is glaring. The reason for this scientific void is not a lack of interested researchers or compelling hypotheses. It is political.
The US government has in place a series of systems that effectively act as blockades against any scientist who would dare study the benefits of cannabis, so modern research on the herb has fallen behind. Due to excess review requirement put in place in 1999 by a tough-on-drugs Clinton administration, it’s easier for an independent researcher to study any substance other than cannabis. This includes the plant’s neighbors on the government’s Schedule I list of most dangerous drugs, like heroin and meth.
Countless personal anecdotes proclaim marijuana’s life-saving capabilities— the most conspicuous of which are the stories of concentrated cannabis oil’s ability to stop seizures in epileptic children. The web is also full of self-documented cases and news stories showing the oil’s ability to clear up skin cancer, Crohn’s disease and other serious illnesses. Despite the clear and urgent necessity for clinical trials, marijuana’s healing effects remain largely mysterious, thanks to policies leftover from the Reefer Madness era.
Animal and lab studies out of other countries, like Israel and Spain, have illustrated the plant’s ability to mitigate all number of ailments, including cancer. And, as Paul Armentano of the marijuana legalization organization NORML points out in a recent article, marijuana is actually one of the most studied substances of modern times, and its human use dates back thousands of years.
“A search on PubMed, the repository for all peer-reviewed scientific papers, using the term “marijuana” yields more than 21,000 scientific papers referencing the plant and/or its constituents, nearly half of which have been published just within the past decade. By contrast, a keyword search using the term ‘ibuprofen’ yields only about half as many papers; a search associated with the prescription painkiller ‘hydrocodone’ yields only 700 studies, while a search using the keyword ‘adderall’ yields fewer than 200 peer-reviewed papers.
The recent shift in public opinion marijuana, coupled with the undeniable proof of its healing potentials, has propelled a historic heave against the research blockade. It is beginning to crumble. After decades of work to get FDA approval, the first ever placebo-controlled clinical trial looking at cannabis for human subjects in the US is just about set to leave the ground in Arizona, pending a final DEA approval of the study facilities.
Several new animal studies are also breaking ground, and the government has tripled its production of cannabis in response (all legal cannabis studies in the US are required to use government-grown weed—part of the red tape that has slowed research down significantly).
All in all, marijuana science is a topic very much in vogue, which is likely why a publication as esteemed and historic as National Geographic chose it as the focus of its June 2015 issue. The feature examined the many ways marijuana is shifting in our culture—and in the process urging us to rethink everything we thought we knew about the drug. While noting what a shame it is that there isn’t more pot science already out there, Sides delves into the existing research—primarily performed on lab rats—and outlines some of the most fascinating facts we do know about the cannabis plant to date.
Here are five of the most mind-boggling marijuana science breakthroughs to date, as outlined in National Geographic.
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