It’s not always easy explaining to your family what you do for a living; less so when it involves cannabis and the law. Fast-forward a few years, many controversial dinner conversations, and one of my family members was diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy[1]. The phrase, “You can’t be serious” was used more than once when I suggested there was credible research that supported cannabis use for the type of pain they were experiencing. Internet research regarding “conventional treatment” options began and my family was shocked when our local doctor recommended considering cannabis as a potential alternative. This recommendation started a new dialogue. Our family discussions then turned to, myth-debunking sessions, and, “well, I heard this…” about cannabis.

It made me realize that many people, who discuss cannabis, do not have a firm grasp on what it really is or what “cannabinoids” are. It also made me realize that there is a wealth of information out there from seemingly credible sources that may paint a skewed picture (in both directions) of this emerging field. In this series of posts, I plan on “cutting through the weeds, instead of beating around the bush” to explore and tackle questions that repeatedly surface when dealing with our clients. Without further ado, we will begin with the basics and build from there.

What Are Cannabinoids?

To many cannabis is simply: “marijuana”, “pot”, “weed”, “the devil’s lettuce”, or any other myriad of creative names. It is a vilified drug that belongs back in the Woodstock of old — but the reality, is there is much more than that; the term “cannabis” is actually the genus of flowering plants in the family “Cannabaceae”. Some of you will be shocked to find out that your favorite brew is formed from a close “cousin” in the same family as cannabis — hops. Even more surprising, your body not only has receptors for the molecules in cannabis, but naturally produces endocannabinoids[2].

Cannabinoids are a class of chemical compounds that act on cannabinoid receptors in the body that modify neurotransmitter interactions. At present, there are two known cannabinoid receptor types in the body in what is termed your, “endocannabinoid system”, CB1 and CB2 receptors. However, if you break down the plant, we can find over 70 different phytocannabinoids with potential pharmacologic activity. Human CB1 receptors are most densely concentrated in the brain and central nervous system. To a lesser extent, they are expressed in the peripheral nervous system. Conversely, studies have shown that CB2 receptors are predominantly influential in the peripheral nervous system but also present in the central nervous system.

Collectively, these receptors have been linked to activity in the brain, gastrointestinal system, pain and inflammatory response, cardiovascular activity, motor control, immune system, and peripheral nervous system.

Part two will cover the differences between the two most common components of cannabis —THC and CBD; what are they, what do they do, and how can they affect the body.