Research Reaps Reefer Madness

Nick Vu | Staff Photographer

Advancement in pain research was recently made by American and Italian scientists at the University of California, Irvine.

The research team was headed by Daniele Piomelli, director of the center for drug discovery and professor of pharmacology. The research team says the drug, URB937, allows a marijuana-like substance to control pain at target sites in the body. Research shows that cannabinoid compounds could be used in new pain medications. The new medication, although similar to marijuana’s effect, would be neither addictive nor sedative and would not be as harmful as opiates.

The drug functions by blocking an enzyme that degrades a compound called anandamide, which naturally exists in humans and is similar to THC, the active component in marijuana.

Several years ago, after molecular biologists discovered the brain receptor where marijuana’s active ingredient THC did its work, researchers at Hebrew University in Jerusalem identified the body’s own form of THC, which sticks to the same receptors. The engineered substance was given the name “anandamide,” which derives from the Sanskrit “ananda,” or bliss.

Anandamide was thought to only function within the brain, however with URB937, anandamide works in peripheral tissues as well. Researchers at the university gave the drug to lab rats and mice, discovering that the drug suppresses an enzyme called FAAH, boosting the amount of anandamide and lessening pain at the site of an injury.

“These findings are significant because they show for the first time how FAAH inhibitors may enable the body to harness its own analgesic and anti-inflammatory powers right where the pain relief is needed and avoid side effects often seen in other painkillers,” Piomelli said in a recent article in Nature Neuroscience. “This has great potential to give patients more treatment options to relieve a wide spectrum of pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis and peripheral neuropathic pain.”

Anandamide, as part of the endocannabinoid system, moderates appetite, pain, mood and memory. The controversial positive effects of marijuana includes anxiety relief, appetite enhancement suppression of nausea, relief from the symptoms of glaucoma and amelioration of certain kinds of pain. By blocking FAAH, URB937 can create similar pain relief effects as marijuana without generating a pseudo-marijuana high, according to a UCI news release.

Currently, only a handful of states allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes, so this advancement at the university could possibly be helpful to millions of patients who do not have access to medicinal marijuana.

However, in light of such strong opposition to Proposition 19, (a voting effort to de-criminalize and tax cannibus), advancements in anything related to medical marijuana certainly raises the question of what the political implications of URB937 will be if released to patients. On the Nov. 2 ballot, Californians will vote for the first time in four decades on an initiative that would legalize possession and cultivation of marijuana. The measure would legally allow anyone 21 or older to possess, share or transport up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use and to grow up to 25 square feet per residence or parcel. Additionally, cities and counties would be authorized to regulate and tax commercial marijuana production and sales.

Science is taking large strides through a field of weed, so how will politics be affected? Many of those opposing the legalization are resting on the argument that marijuana is a dangerous mind-altering, addictive substance that impairs the development of young brains, leading to “drugged driving” accidents, etc.

For others, URB937 may be the closing argument that they’ve been searching for. The drug’s pain relief capabilities, without any risky side-effects, could be the answer to the opposition’s argument that marijuana has very little medicinal purpose.

Despite it all, the fact that legalizing marijuana could possibly pull California out of its financial crises, minimize violence in drug cartels and redirect enforcement resources to other more serious crimes makes Prop 19 more tantalizing than ever.

Questions of whether or not the law will actually pass are still being contested. According to Lauren Lee, third-year Southwest regional director for the college Democrats of America, Prop 19 has all the makings of a legitimate law, but it has little chance of being put into place.

“I don’t think it’s going to pass because it would be political suicide for any politician to endorse,” Lee said. “Additionally, there are too many logistics preventing an effective legalization of marijuana if through a proposition. To effectively end the prohibition, it will have to be a constitutional amendment or no longer considered a ‘controlled substance’ by the federal government.”

As research continues to move forward, it is uncertain whether more people will be swayed toward voting yes on 19. However, the comparison in defense of using URB937 instead of marijuana most likely won’t be drawn until after URB937’s release. As with every new drug, the side-effects of substance use still needs to be tested. URB937 has more research to be done and the drug will not be available to the public just yet, at least not before Nov. 2.

Maxine Wally also contributed to this article.