The Biological Science of Cannabis: How Marijuana Affects our Brains and Bodies

With legalization on the horizon, understanding the effects of cannabis is more important than ever.

Marijuana is about to go mainstream.

Starting on October 17, all adults aged 19 and over will be able to legally possess 30 grams of dried cannabis, or the equivalent in oil, across Canada.

While it’s no free-for-all — federal and provincial governments have already begun to roll out extensive new rules and restrictions for the sale, distribution and consumption of cannabis — this represents a big change from the blanket prohibition that has been in place since 1923.

Medical cannabis has been a legal treatment option in Canada for certain health conditions since 2001, and with the shift to full-on legalization, more consumers may be curious about the potential health benefits of cannabis.

One company with decades of experience in pharmaceutical innovation and large-scale agriculture is well-positioned to bring their research to the public.

Based in Victoria, B.C., Emerald Health Therapeutics is federally licensed under Canada’s Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations to produce and sell dried cannabis and cannabis oil for medicinal purposes.

“In the pharmaceutical industry, you look for the effectiveness and safety of [a product]. From my point of view, that’s exactly what needed to happen and still needs to happen in the cannabis industry,” says Chris Wager, CEO of Emerald Health Therapeutics.

Cannabis works with the endocannabinoid system (ECS) — a complex biological communications system that allows the brain and body to regulate a multitude of physiological and cognitive functions using naturally occurring compounds called endocannabinoids.

Endocannabinoid receptors are found throughout the body on the surfaces of cells in the brain, organs, tissues, bones and glands.
“The endocannabinoid system operates on the same idea [as insulin]. There are these endocannabinoid receptors on all of our cells, particularly in our brain, and particularly in our stomach. These cells get opened and closed by the endocannabinoid system,” says Wagner. “Why does cannabis work? It binds to this system.”

The ECS is critical to human survival, controlling how we eat, sleep, relax and recharge. In fact, the ECS plays a role in every major biological function of the human body, including but not limited to pain control, mood, memory, immune function, appetite, digestion, elimination, temperature regulation and reproduction.

So where does cannabis come in?

A class of chemicals produced in the marijuana plant — cannabinoids — mimic the body’s naturally occurring endocannabinoids. When properly used, cannabinoids may help stimulate the ECS in a therapeutic way.

For example, there’s growing clinical evidence that certain cannabinoids in cannabis (such as THC and CBD) may help alleviate nausea and vomiting resulting from cancer chemotherapy, reduce muscle spasticity and neuropathic pain associated with multiple sclerosis, help stimulate appetite in people with HIV/AIDS-related anorexia and pain and nerve damage in osteoarthritic joints.

There’s also evidence that cannabis may assist in opioid detoxification and weaning, thus making it a potential weapon in battling the current deadly opioid epidemic.

“If you remove cannabis from somebody who’s taken it for years, they don’t all of a sudden get changes in heart rate, changes in breathing, those types of things which are typically associated with physiological addiction [to opioids],” explains Wagner.

The Emerald Health Therapeutics team includes physicians, academics, financial experts, engineers and horticulturists who collectively offer more than 60 years of cannabis growing and marketing knowledge — from biotechnology, to pharmaceutical development, to commercialization.

The combination of skilled scientists and premier plant strains means Emerald operates on the cutting edge and is able to develop new cannabis varieties using plant genetics. What’s more, the company receives federal research grants, enabling its team to devote substantial resources towards research and clinical trials, leading the way for the future of medicinal cannabis.

“The scientific playbook that we’re going to use [involves] pulling the plant apart into its different cannabinoids [and] recombining those cannabinoids in novel ways with specific outcomes in mind,” says Wagner.

“We’re a small country, but 36 million people is enough to do some very, very good research with. And so, that’s pretty exciting.”

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