medical marijuana

A review of mechanisms in medical marijuana: the endocannabinoid pathway, receptors, tetrahydrocannabinol, and cannabidiol 

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist

@VThornleyMD

April 28, 2018

Introduction

The Cannabis sativa plant has been known since the beginning of time. It can be traced back 5000 years ago when it was first known to man to alleviate common complaints. It came into the American pharmacopeia in the 19th century then abolished in the 1930’s, likely not coincidentally as the era of prohibition was lifted. It is known to treat ailments such as chronic pain and migraine. In the middle ages, it was used to treat headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, bacterial infections and pain from rheumatological conditions. It was previously known for its psychoactive properties.  It is recently making a resurgence in popularity regarding its medical value. The issue is a topic of hot debate as state laws are at odds with federal laws. Currently, as of April 2018, it is still recognized as a category 1 drug, meaning it is not officially proclaimed to have any medical value despite the long rich history of treating medical symptoms. It is lumped in with other drugs of abuse such as heroin and cocaine.

Background on the Cannabis sativa plant and their metabolites

The Cannabis sativa plant is abundantly rich in phytocannabinoids, the most commonly known and used for its therapeutic value are cannabidiol and tetrahydrocannabinol. The endocannabinoid pathway is comprised of receptors that are coupled with G proteins and cannabinoids (1). In the Cannabis sativa plant, there are 80 phytocannabinoids that can bind to a cannabinoid receptor.

There are 8 major cannabinoids including cannabigerolic acid, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabolinic acid A, cannabidiolic acid A, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabigerol, cannabidiol, cannabichromene, and tetrahydrocannabivarin in the different strains of Cannabis sativa (1).

Ehlsoly, et al, classified it into 11 categories: cannabigerol, cannabichromene, cannabidiol, ∆9-trans-tetrahydrocannabinol, ∆8-trans-tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabicyclol, cannabielsoin, cannabinol, cannabinodiol, cannabitriol, and miscellaneous. ∆9 -trans-tetrahydrocannabinol , cannabinol, and cannabidiol are the most well-studied and well-known.

Cannabidiol is extracted from the hemp portion of the plant considered a male part of the plant, there are no psychoactive properties in cannabidiol. Psychoactivity is defined as anything above 0.3% of THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol is derived from the female portion of the plant, particularly the flowers. Conditions are such that in nurseries only a certain amount of sunlight is given to the plants so that specific strains can be grown. Some plants will be richer in cannabidiol, others will be more THC pure and other swill have an equal amount of CBD and THC but it depends on how the plants are grown and under what conditions.

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Endocannabinoid pathway

It is through the endocannabinoid pathway that one gets the sense of well being after exercise or eating chocolate. It is not through endorphins, serotonin or noradrenergic neurotransmitters as they are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier. Tetrahydrocannabinol acts as a mimetic of Anandamide while cannabidiol acts as a mimetic of 2-Arachidinoylglyerol (or 2-AG). The endocannabinoid system works through cannabinoids, the receptors, transporters, and enzymes.

Receptors

The phytocannabinoids work on cannabinoid receptors. The endocannabinoid system is mediated by 3 parts: the cannabinoids, the cannabinoid receptors, and the enzymes. The receptors are of 2 types, CB1 which is found primarily in the nervous system especially in the areas that subserve pain modulation, memory and movement. The CB2 receptor is more peripherally found specifically in the immune system. The CB2 receptor is found to a lesser extent in other organs including tissues of reproduction, pituitary, heart, lungs, adrenal and gastrointestinal systems.  Cannabinoids also react with the TRPV receptor or the transient receptor cation channel subfamily V. They can also act on G receptors including GPR55 thought to be significant in controlling seizures. Other receptors include GPR12, GPR18, and GPR119 (2).

Tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol and their effect on receptors

THC and CBD are the most well-known and well-studied. THC has psychoactive properties and works as a partial agonist on the CB1 receptor and the CB2 receptor. Cannabidiol which has no psychoactive properties works as an antagonist on CB1/CB2 receptor and an agonist on the CB1 and CB2 receptor. Rather than decreasing the effects of THC, it works in a synergistic manner in combination with THC. It potentiates the THC effects by increasing the CB1 densities. CBD increases vanilloid pain receptors, reduces metabolism and reduces re-uptake of anandamide, THC’s mimetic component. Other studies suggest CBD acts as an indirect agonist by interacting with the CB1 receptor so there are less psychoactive symptoms from THC when the two are combined.

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Pharmacokinetics of tetrahydrocannabinol

Regardless of the way of taking it, the protein binding and the and volume of distribution are not affected by the route of taking it. Pharmacokinetics of creams and vaporizers are unclear. Smoking THC appears to exert an effect within minutes of intake and bioavailability is variable depending upon the extent of inhalation ranging between 2-69%. The effect is within minutes. Half-life increases with each inhalation at 2 puffs inhaled for THC it is 1.9 hours and 5.3 hours in CBD at 8 inhalations it is 5.2 hours in THC and 9.4 hours in CBD at a dosage of 5.4mgTHC/5.0mg CBD and 21.5mg THC/20 mg CBD respectively.

Oral routes may seem to be safer but have more adverse effects including GI symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Oral mucosal absorption is rapid within 15 minutes to 60 minutes. Oral tablets are lower in the rate of absorption at about 0.6 to 2.5 hours. The rate of elimination, when taken orally, is biphasic, initially occurring at 4 hours then 24-38 hours after ingestion.

In summary

There is much research ongoing on the mechanisms underlying the medical value of medical marijuana. It is now thought that cannabigerolic acid may have medicinal properties as well. So far, the most well-known and well studied are delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol. Most likely as research continues, greater value will likely be attributed towards the phytocannabinoids.

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References

  1. Wang, et al, “Quantitative Determination of delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol, CBG, CBD, their acid precursors and five other neutral cannabinoids by UHPLC-UV-MS,” Planta. Med, 2019, mar., 84 (4):260-266.
  2.  Landa, et al, “Medical cannabis in the treatment of cancer pain and spastic conditions and options of drug delivery in clinical practice,”Biomed. Pap. Med. Fac. Univ. Palacky Olomouc Czech Repub., 2018, Mar; 162(1):18-25.
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