Pot on the brain

Our bodies produce cannabis-like substances anyway, so why not put them in pill form to kill pain?

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

President Clinton may never have inhaled, but his brain has been secreting cannabis-like chemicals for years.

In fact, according to a Brown University study released Tuesday, anandamide has been flowing through all of our brains since birth. An analgesic in the cannabinoid family -- a generic term for anything, THC included, that hits the cannabinoid receptor -- anandamide is remarkably similar to the active ingredient in marijuana. A cousin to endorphins, our body's opiates, pain triggers its release.

Scientists have known for 20 years that our brains contained cannabinoids, but the Brown study pinpointed the location in the brain, the secretion process and the amounts released. The research confirms this year's massive NIH study, which proved marijuana had therapeutic uses. Like that study, it also leans toward a pharmacological replacement for the green and leafy weed. What's different is the reasoning: The NIH study opposed smoking marijuana because of its detrimental effect on the lungs; the Brown study shows that an effective marijuana pill would be not just healthier, but better.

"Whereas smoking marijuana bombards all the brain's receptors, then fades, a modulated pill could extend the natural actions of the brain's own cannabinoids or marijuana-like substances, and be more selective in its pain-killing actions," Walker said.

Sure, he said, "It would kill the pain without making you goofy." But it would also concentrate more intensely on the pain-inflamed body parts, and last longer.

"It would enhance the release of the brain's own marijuana," Walker said.

"That's what people want," he added. "People who are suffering chronic pain go to work, and they want to make decisions without the drug affecting them. That's why people love Advil, because it works without any side effects."

AIDS patients that don't respond to morphine and other opiates would be eligible for such a product, but Walker stressed the immediate value for people with neuropathic pain, those with damaged nerves that lie to the brain about pain that does not exist. Often, stroke victims suffer from this condition, as do those with multiple sclerosis. But people with gashes that never healed correctly can also be affected.

According to the Pain Clinical Research Center, thousands of people suffer such conditions, which are difficult to treat. Often traditional painkillers fail.

For those with lesser pain, Walker's research also confirms an earlier study by Ken Hargraves at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which found that a butter of cannabis often helped reduce swelling. Because the body's cannabinoid secreters reside throughout the body, Hargraves' study gained some teeth.

Still, despite the apparent rubdown from Walker's crew, medical marijuana advocates tend to oppose such research, fearing that the quest for a pot pill ignores the socioeconomic issue of access.

"In reality, the drugs will always turn on class," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a Washington lobby. "There will be people who can't afford access to these drugs. Regardless of this, the moralization of the issue has created an irresistible urge to remove the pleasurable aspects of marijuana."

But Walker said such attitudes ignored the neutrality of science. Understanding how our brains work is a noble effort," he said. "We shouldn't stop doing that for fear of totalitarian tactics."

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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