Humans have been using cannabis across thousands of years, hundreds of cultures and countless conditions. But you’d be right to say the science hasn’t always been there. In fact, cannabis has only gotten a seat—er, a half seat—at the science table recently. Up until recently, supporters seemed happy with little more than anecdotal evidence to make the case. But as the science builds, and legalization gains momentum, even the biggest skeptics are eating their words. Cannabis is finally recognized as the magical plant it is—safe and effective for a whole host of aches and pains.
How can one little plant treat so many conditions—each one so different from the next?It all comes down to a discovery made by cannabis researcher Raphael Mechoulam in 1992. He stumbled on a physiological system that promised to change the course of (cannabis) history. The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is a network of receptors and compounds found in every mammal. It’s there to maintain the body’s equilibrium or homeostasis, which is fancy speak for regulating things like pain, appetite, sleep, immune function, neurogenesis and stress. The ECS is also what interacts directly with the active ingredients in cannabis. The mechanics of the ECS look something like a series of locks and keys throughout the body. The locks (or internal receptors) sit dormant until the keys (or cannabinoids) come along to activate them. Our bodies produce the keys on their very own. We call them endocannabinoids. But our bodies also welcome keys from the outside world. And in particular, they respond very well to the types of keys found in the cannabis plant known as phytocannabinoids. (You know these as THC or CBD.) Endo- and phytocannabinoids actually stimulate the body in the same way. Meaning, the ECS can be targeted and modified with quite a lot of accuracy through the introduction of external stimulus or cannabis. The two most studied ECS receptors are the CB1 and CB2 receptors. The CB1 receptors exist throughout the body’s pain pathway. The CB2 ones, on the other hand, help to make up the immune system. When the right endo- or phytocannabinoids interact with these receptors, patients experience a fundamental reduction in things like pain and inflammation. With any luck, Mechoulam’s discovery will continue to serve as the foundation for future research on the relationship between the cannabis plant and the human body. How many medical breakthroughs tell that kind of love story?