Real Marijuana Science Comes to College

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Curious if medical marijuana will work for you? You could ask your doctor, but you may be better off with Wikipedia—or, if you’re a faithful reader of these pages, your may be better served if your doctor asks you.

According to physician David Bearman, no more than 13 percent of medical schools so much as make mention to would-be physicians of the key physiological secret of medical cannabis: the endocannabinoid system, the network of receptors in human cells activated by compounds like ones found in marijuana, which appear to regulate mood, appetite, and sleep. Discovered by a researcher in Israel in the early 1960s, cannabinoid receptors may explain why cannabis has been shown to have anti-tumor qualities but have been but barely studied, thanks in large part to the drug war making funding and approval for cannabis studies hard to come by.

Marijuana used to be standard in medicine: In pharmacy school in Minnesota in the 1920s, Bearman’s father’s curriculum included learning how to concoct cannabis tincture. It was a staple in most pharmacies, which prescribed medical marijuana to three million Americans, Bearman claims.

Now, science is failing society in figuring out what marijuana does exactly to the brain and body. Though there’s enough positive in the giant pile of research to date to declare marijuana an effective treatment for several ailments, science is years away from any kind of accepted consensus on the plant’s potential and how to properly apply it to unlock that potential.

With some form of medical marijuana legal in more than 30 states, with desperate parents and bereft patients searching for cures, with doctors of vastly varying backgrounds learning cannabis science on the fly to guide them, colleges have adapted to fill this knowledge gap only recently. Community colleges in San Francisco and California’s Central Valley are helping students prepare for jobs cultivating and selling cannabis; “Physiology of Cannabis,” the new class to be taught to undergraduates at the University of California, Davis, is believed to be the first course taught at a UC campus on how marijuana affects humans.

“Designed for students in the biological sciences,” the class “will cover the biology of cannabis and cannabinoids as well as their physiological effects in multiple systems, underlying mechanisms and therapeutic values,” according to information from the university and U.C. Davis molecular biologist Yu-Fung Lin, who is teaching the class. (Lin has not published on cannabis before, as per her bio, but has worked on cell biology and signaling for many years.)“It also will survey the history of cannabis use, cover the endocannabinoid system and discuss potential medical targets for cannabis and their relative effectiveness.”

For many, cannabis’s big attraction is money, as in how many billions of dollars Americans will spend buying marijuana. Meanwhile, the next frontier for medical marijuana will be targeted care, which requires knowing exactly what cannabinoids do what to which receptors. We don’t know this yet, and it will be a while before we do.

More research is coming—even the FDA and DEA say they’re behind adding to the knowledge base. But before they can find out enough to teach us, current and future researchers have more to learn.

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