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It was an unprecedented meeting of the minds and it happened at Harvard Medical School. The subject of April’s confab? Medical cannabis. Researchers suspect cannabis can do so many things, from fighting cancer to easing concussions and Crohn’s disease. There are still tight restrictions but weed is increasingly coming into the scientific mainstream. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports.
But, first: how science is increasingly considering the possibilities of medical marijuana as conventional medicine for some cases.
Science correspondent Miles O'Brien has the second of his two reports on this for our weekly series The Leading Edge.
MILES O’BRIEN, Science Correspondent:
It's a landmark place, and time, on the long road to bring medicinal marijuana into the scientific mainstream.
The New England Treatment Access, or NETA, dispensary in Brookline, Massachusetts, is housed in a Beaux-Arts bank building built in the 1920s, a cathedral of cannabis.
Paul Breeden has been coming here to treat chronic pain since the dispensary opened in February.
I have been praying for this day all my life. I have been fighting for this day all my life. I'm a son of a minister. I believe God created marijuana. Humans don't know how God works.
Look at that thing.
NETA is a nonprofit, serving about 7,000 medical marijuana customers now. The goal is to supply 10,000 on an ongoing basis. Besides dried flowers and buds that can be smoked, they offer pills, vapor cartridges, creams, tinctures, brownies, chocolates and lozenges.
It's really part of sort of the normalization of medical cannabis. The days of Ziploc baggies are over.
Norton Arbelaez is a NETA consultant who turned to medical marijuana after he contracted a staph infection 10 years ago.
NORTON ARBELAEZ, New England Treatment Access:
I had quite a bit of pain. I was prescribed opiate painkillers. And I made a decision, a very conscious decision to not take them. So, I had to find a way to medicate otherwise. I did some research, and cannabis seemed like a good choice for me.
Arbelaez believes this classic old bank is brick-and-mortar proof pot is emerging from prohibition, not just legally, but also in the court of public opinion.
We are coming out of the shadows and into the mainstream. What better way to say that than to be in such a beautiful and historic building, the first, really, of this magnitude on the Eastern Seaboard, I think is a harbinger of things to come.
Five minutes away from the dispensary, another possible harbinger.
I can think of no better place to host the first annual CannMed Conference than here at Harvard Medical School, so welcome.
The first annual Personalized Cannabinoid Medicine Conference at Harvard Medical School in April, an unprecedented meeting of the minds in the world of medical marijuana.
DR. RAPHAEL MECHOULAM, Hebrew University of Jerusalem: For almost 30 years, nothing happened.
And the father of marijuana research was here to receive a lifetime achievement award. Raphael Mechoulam is an Israeli chemist who became interested in cannabis when he began his scientific career.
DR. RAPHAEL MECHOULAM:
And I was kind of surprised to find out that the chemistry of cannabis, an important drug, in my view, wasn't well known. As a matter of fact, we didn't know at that time — I'm speaking of the early '60s — the active compounds had not been isolated in pure form.
In 1963, he identified the structure of cannabidiol, CBD, one of the most medically important compounds found in cannabis, and, in 1964, he isolated the active component of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, THC.
I thought that as soon as we know the chemistry and the pharmacology and then the toxicity, and if there are any positive effects, companies will go in and take compounds and go ahead with clinical trials, which is true for a huge, huge number of drugs.
But this drug is like no other. It was made illegal one year after the 1936 release of a cinematic diatribe against marijuana called "Reefer Madness."
It's not so much the substance itself. It's who uses it. The substance was associated with Mexican-American and African-American communities. If you look at the precepts of "Reefer Madness," it's a pretty, I would say, embarrassing part of our national history.
In the U.S., marijuana still remains classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, the same category as heroin, cocaine and LSD, with tight restrictions for researchers and no accepted use for medical treatment.
Still, Dr. Mechoulam pressed on, gradually writing the scientific textbook on marijuana. But for years, he didn't fully understand how and why cannabis works in our bodies. And then, in the early '90s, he had a eureka moment.
THC mimics compounds which we make called endogenous cannabinoids, which our brain makes, our body makes. THC mimics their effects. All this is called the endocannabinoid system, and this endocannabinoid system seems to be extremely important.
Here's how endocannabinoids work in our nervous system.
The nerves that form the electrical grid of our body are not continuous strands of fiber. Instead, there are many gaps in the wiring. The nerve ends are called neurons; the gaps, synapses. The electrical current is transmitted from neuron to neuron across synapses by chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
The volume and route of these signals determines what we are thinking, what we perceive and what we feel. Our body generates cannabinoids to help regulate the flow of these neurotransmitters. Scientists suspect the active ingredient in cannabis, THC, can either increase or decrease the flow of the neurotransmitters. And this can have all kinds of impacts on our physical state of being.
The endocannabinoid system is involved in essentially all human diseases.
Different endocannabanoid receptors are found in non-nerve cells in the immune system, for example. So perhaps it is no surprise that researchers suspect cannabis can do so many things, from fighting cancer, to concussions, to Crohn's disease.
But perhaps the most dramatic story of how cannabis might be good medicine is in epilepsy. In the '70s and '80s, Dr. Mechoulam published studies that showed CBD can curb seizures. There was no further research, until parents of epileptic children who didn't respond to conventional pharmaceuticals discovered Dr. Mechoulam's work.
CATHERINE JACOBSON, Tilray:
I do this with two hats.
Neuroscientist Catherine Jacobson told her story to the cannabis medical conference at Harvard. Her 7-year-old son, Ben, has epilepsy. After discovering Dr. Mechoulam's papers, she started giving Ben daily homemade doses of CBD, at times making the formula in her garage.
His seizures diminished by 40 percent.
But it's excruciating to think about what we went through to get here, right, and what might have happened if we had been able to do this five years ago or six years ago.
I know for a fact he would be a different kid today if he hadn't suffered all that brain damage.
Her experience with her son and CBD prompted her to redirect her scientific career. She now heads clinical research for Tilray, a Canadian medical marijuana company trying to turn cannabis into conventional medicine.
If it can't happen in the U.S., then we're going to make it happen globally.
But Dr. Mechoulam believes the pace of research will increase dramatically if prohibition in the U.S. is lifted.
People express themselves and say, we want this to be done, it can be done. It is complicated. It will cost money. It will take time, but it can be done.
During his visit to Boston, Raphael Mechoulam visited NETA's remarkable dispensary. The father of marijuana research spent a career trying to make this moment, this place possible.
Miles O'Brien, the "PBS NewsHour," Brookline, Massachusetts.
Footage of Raphael Mechoulam from "The Scientist: are we missing something?" Courtesy of Zach Klein and Fundación CANNA Additional footage from: Tilray, Catherine Jacobson, NETA
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