Clearing the Haze

    (Andrew Ricci/Guardian)

    Labs at UCSD and around San Diego
    are investigating the medicinal value and addictive qualities of cannabis, the
    drug that, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is used
    by approximately 162 million people each year.

    Like many other recreational drugs, marijuana binds to the
    brain’s receptors. Receptors are similar to keyholes, which release an effect
    throughout the body when the correct link is made. However, unlike many of the
    body’s other compounds, the brain has receptors that respond specifically to
    chemicals found in marijuana, called cannabinoid receptors. These receptors
    trigger physical rewards in the body during exercise, in what UCSD School of
    Medicine professor of anesthesiology Dr. Mark Wallace likens to “the runner’s
    high.”

    The most common cannabinoid in marijuana is
    tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. According to Wallace, there are over 450
    compounds within the plant that contribute to marijuana’s effects.

    Wallace’s most recent study on cannabinoids involved 15
    healthy individuals who inhaled marijuana and endured pain from a forearm
    injection of capsaicin, the compound that produces the spicy sensation in chili
    peppers.

    Wallace found that if capsaicin was injected 45 minutes
    after a subject smoked marijuana, there was a significant decrease in pain.
    However, if capsaicin was administered five minutes after the subject smoked,
    there was no significant decrease in pain. In addition, Wallace found that task
    performance and motor skills in his study were not significantly impaired with
    a dose of 4 percent THC marijuana.

    “This study was conducted to put the debated pain-relieving
    quality of cannabis to the test,” Wallace said. “We were shown that there is a
    potential benefit in using cannabis moderately to treat patients with chronic
    pain.”

    Wallace’s study was funded by SB 847, a bill signed into
    effect by former Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. The legislation allowed the University
    of California
    to establish a
    California Medical Marijuana Research Program. With this bill, as well as the
    1996 State Proposition 215, the Center for Medical Cannabis Research was
    established. Based in San Diego and
    affiliated with UCSD, the center gathers researchers to answer the ultimate
    question involving marijuana — is it genuinely therapeutic and effective enough
    for medicinal use?

    “The ultimate goal for the CMCR is to test the safety and
    efficacy of using cannabis and its compounds in medical treatment,” CMCR
    representative Heather Bentley said. “This goal holds particularly true in
    situations where there are no other solutions for patients who suffer from
    chronic pain and or illness.”

    Bentley said cancer, AIDS, obsessive-compulsive disorder,
    diabetes, multiple-sclerosis and depression have all been medically treated
    with the use of marijuana with some success.

    While UCSD heads many cannabis experiments, it receives all
    research marijuana from one government-funded source — the University of
    Mississippi — which is governed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the
    sole American contractor that has been growing legal marijuana since 1974.

    At the Scripps Research Institute, NIDA is supplying another
    project with drastically different goals. SRI Professor Barbara Mason is
    heading a study that will look at addiction as a reason for constant marijuana
    relapses.

    Participants in Mason’s study are required to be regular
    marijuana users and are paid to not smoke. They are given a medication which
    abruptly blocks cannabinoid receptors, creating a full-scale withdrawal from
    marijuana for day. This allows Mason and her colleagues to study marijuana
    withdrawal within a short period of time, whereas natural withdrawal usually
    lasts for months.

    “Our study focuses on abuse and dependence on cannabis and
    how it affects higher cognitive functioning, like reasoning, decision making
    and problem solving,” Mason said. “We are trying to characterize marijuana
    withdrawal.”

    Mason said one of the most prevalent symptoms of marijuana
    withdrawal is sleep disturbances, characterized by strange dreams and
    interruptions that can last months after a user quits smoking. Other symptoms
    include “violent outbursts,” such as aggressive behavior, anxiety attacks and
    difficulty concentrating.

    UCSD assistant professor of psychiatry Dr. Susan Tapert will
    create magnetic resonance images of the brains of participants involved once
    the study moves past its initial stages. The participants include some of
    UCSD’s own students.

    Tapert is particularly interested in how cannabis use
    affects long-term development of the brain in adolescents and young adults.

    “This matter is important to me because marijuana is so
    widely used,” Tapert said. “About 5 percent of high school seniors report using
    marijuana daily. It is import to understand its neurological effects, so that
    young adults are rightfully informed about the effects of marijuana use.”

    According to Mason, despite marijuana’s widespread use, its
    effects on the body and mind are hardly understood. Because marijuana’s
    long-term effects are still unknown, researchers like Tapert are focusing their
    attention on teens and young adults, like undergraduates, whose learning
    abilities could be affected by the substance.

    “Like with any substance, overuse can bring undesired
    results,” Wallace said. “In the future, marijuana’s place in medicine will
    hopefully be understood, as well its adverse effects on the mind and body.”

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