South Africa: Cannabis Legalization Offers Medical Research Opportunities

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The impending legalization of access to medical cannabinoids in South Africa is opening up a host of research opportunities that the medical sector should embrace. This is according to Dr Sean Chetty, Deputy Head of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Stellenbosch, who adds that a combination of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), two of the active components in cannabis, may offer new ways to alleviate suffering as a result of certain neurological conditions.

“The effects of cannabinoids on the body’s nervous system have already been documented, and the fact that it can alleviate certain kinds of pain and stimulate appetite have already been proven. What we need to do now is explore the possible applications that THC and CBD may have in treating and managing the symptoms of certain conditions. I believe that it is important for the medical community to start changing its mindset regarding this controversial substance so that in-depth study can take place,” he says.

Wouter Lombard, Brand Manager of Neuropsychiatry at Cipla agrees that the opportunity to research the possible applications of cannabis in the medical field, should be taken as soon as it becomes viable.

In March of last year, the Western Cape High court ruled that the current law against the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use has been found to be unlawful. Parliament has been given two years in which to rectify the laws. This has opened possibilities for legislation allowing the cultivation and use of medical cannabis, among others.

“Throughout the human body there are cannabinoid receptors, which are involved in a variety of physiological processes, including appetite, pain sensation, mood and memory. These receptors are activated by cannabinoids, generated naturally inside the body, as well as by substances such as THC and CBD, which stimulates the body’s receptors,” says Chetty

Chetty notes of the possible benefits that Multiple Sclerosis sufferers might receive from medicines produced from cannabinoid research. “In the case of multiple sclerosis, we certainly understand that there is no real cure for the condition, but we should be looking for better ways to manage the symptoms. We already know that THC and CBD could potentially reduce the occurrence of spasm and may even reduce pain. Again, the fact that it stimulates the appetite is also good in cases such as these.”

There are, however, several major drawbacks to using THC in its natural form, and Chetty states that he cannot currently advocate the use of medical marijuana. “I see a number of challenges with so-called ‘medical marijuana’ at the moment, which means that I cannot advocate its use as medicine. The first problem has to do with consistency. Various strains of cannabis have various levels of active components and before the medical community even considers prescribing cannabinoids as a treatment, there should be controls in place to ensure that the patient receives the correct doses and quality.”

He adds that the side-effects of natural cannabis cannot be ruled out. “The side effects of THC use have also been documented, and include depression, paranoia and problems related to long-term memory. The possible side effects of the other chemicals found in cannabis in its natural form also need to be taken into account.”

Chetty says that correctly administering cannabis to a patient is also not a simple matter. “As doctors, we certainly cannot recommend that our patients smoke cannabis. We have seen cases where patients use cannabis oil as well, but again we will need to research whether this is the best way to introduce cannabinoids to the human body with the least amount of side-effects,” he says.

“I believe that the medical community is still a long way away from being able to ethically prescribe and administer cannabis. However, we will soon have the opportunity to conduct proper research into how THC and CBD can be used to improve the quality of life for those who are suffering from neurological conditions. Now is the time for the medical community to start changing its mindset and learn how to unlock the potential of this substance,” Chetty says.