The 8th National Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics convened in Portland, Oregon on May 8-10. It was a standing-room only crowd in the City of Roses as healthcare professionals from around the globe gathered to learn the latest about the fascinating endocannabinoid system.
If you don’t know what the “endocannabinoid system” is that is okay. It’s a relatively new discovery, dating back just 22 years, to 1992. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
The endocannabinoid system is a group of neuromodulatory lipids and their receptors in the brain that are involved in a variety of physiological processes including appetite, pain-sensation,mood, and memory; it mediates the psychoactive effects of cannabis …
Listen, if your head is spinning at this point you are not alone. That type of jargon is a lot of what I listened to for three days in Portland. Even Wikipedia has a notation before the definition stating “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.” But if you can just stay with me for a little bit longer you might find your head spinning for entirely different reasons.
Dr. David Sulak of Maine Integrative Healthcare was one of the speakers in Portland and his explanation of the endocannabinoid system is much easier:
The endogenous cannabinoid system, named after the plant that led to its discovery, is perhaps the most important physiologic system involved in establishing and maintaining human health. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the body: in the brain, organs, connective tissues, glands, and immune cells. In each tissue, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.
You might want to take a moment to re-read that paragraph because, honestly, this is important. Make all the jokes that you wish about stoners and pot-heads, this newly discovered aspect of cannabis and its role in our health and general well-being demands a societal shift in attitudes. We must move beyond the cultural wars that have marked the cannabis issue over the past seventy years and approach the naturally occurring substance with a new spirit.
That spirit is what I saw in Portland. At times the presentations bordered on the type of droll, professorial reports that every college student knows too well. My eyes would glaze over trying to read the charts that clicked by in endless PowerPoint presentation. I was often lost, I confess it. But those moments were very short-lived. The sponsoring organization, Patients Out of Time, wisely limit speakers to twenty minutes. My brain quickly learned that if the middle of the presentation became a muddle of chemical names and lilliputian charts the summary was not too distant and the the summary was where the real news resided. Researchers and scientists who calmly and professionally presented their data became different people as they summarized their data because the implications for the future are just so darned exciting.
The theme was “The Endocannabinoid System and Age-Related Illnesses.” There were at least thirty presentations with most focused on modern day applications of the drug. Many of these applications are well known — pain control, lessening of muscle spasms, use as an appetite stimulant — and some are just emerging. The use of cannabis as an anti-tumor treatment is one area that is particularly exciting. Individuals with various cancers are reporting remarkable results from using oils made from various strains of cannabis.
For me, however, the most remarkable presentations were concerned with using cannabis in the elderly to treat dementia and end-of-life. Dementia is the scourge of the elderly and many retreat into a world of isolation because they are unable to communicate. In California, where medical marijuana is legal, some doctors are recommending cannabis for their patients with dementia and the results are often more successful than conventional medications. Sadly these treatments can only be conducted in private pay nursing homes because the federal government will not allow medical marijuana in facilities that accept federal funds. This effectively eliminates all hospice organizations from openly using cannabis which is too bad. In Israel they have been using cannabis in nursing homes since 1988. In the United States, according to the federal government, we need more research.
The 8th National Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics is over and several hundred people like me have streamed out into the world wanting to tell everyone about the wonders of this plant we have denigrated for so long. I believe we have not even seen the tip of the iceberg yet, just an ice cube floating on a huge sea. The next decade will bring discoveries that we never imagined.