Chemicals found in cannabis could be used to help treat dementia, early studies have shown – but further research into the findings is being stymied by restrictive drug laws, scientists say.
Cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can aid the removal of dangerous dementia proteins from brain cells, according to researchers at the Salk Institute, a renowned biomedical research facility in California.
While initial findings published last year raise hopes cannabis compounds could one day form the basis of a new medicine to help treat Alzheimer’s disease, the next steps are proving slow.
Professor David Schubert, who led the study, told CNBC legal issues were a “major roadblock” preventing him and his team from conducting further research into the medicinal properties of marijuana.
“It’s so blatantly obvious that this plant should be studied in greater detail,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get funding without having to worry about legal issues on top of it.”
Professor Schubert said the institute had submitted an application to the US Drug Enforcement Agency for permission to use cannabis extracts for tests on mice in December, but had not yet received a response.
The researchers used a small amount of synthetically-produced cannabinoids in the first study, which was found to stimulate the removal of a toxic plaque associated with dementia in the brain.
Dementia, which mainly affects older people, causes a deterioration in memory, thinking and behaviour and can impede someone’s ability to perform everyday activities.
It affects around 47.5 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation, and it recently overtook heart disease to become the leading cause of death in England and Wales. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
A protein called amyloid beta creates a harmful plaque in the brains of people with dementia that can destroy nerve cells.
Research is ongoing into the role amyloid beta plays in the disease, but scientists believe the protein begins to accumulate in brain cells well before Alzheimer’s symptoms manifest themselves.
The team at the Salk Institute showed that THC reduced the amount of amyloid beta in nerve cells with high levels of the protein, allowing the cells to survive.
The US Alzheimer’s Association have said marijuana is a legitimate area of research into possible treatment for the disease, but some experts have been sceptical, reported CNN.
“It is difficult to say what, if any, effect this might have in humans, even if it would successfully promote clearance of [amyloid beta plaque],” Donovan Maust, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan, said.
Where cannabis is and isn't legal
Where cannabis is and isn't legal
Having been reclassified in 2009 from a Class C to a Class B drug, cannabis is now the most used illegal drug within the United Kingdom. The UK is also, however, the only country where Sativex – a prescribed drug that helps to combat muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis and contains some ingredients that are also found in cannabis - is licensed as a treatment
2/12 North Korea
Although many people believe the consumption of cannabis in North Korea to be legal, the official law regarding the drug has never been made entirely clear whilst under Kim Jong Un’s regime. However, it is said that the North Korean leader himself has openly said that he does not consider cannabis to be a drug and his regime doesn’t take any issue with the consumption or sale of the drug
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In the Netherlands smoking cannabis is legal, given that it is smoked within the designated ‘smoking areas’ and you don’t possess more than 5 grams for personal use. It is also legal to sell the substance, but only in specified coffee shops
Although in some states of America cannabis has now been legalised, prior to the legalisation, police in the U.S. could make a marijuana-related arrest every 42 seconds, according to US News and World Report. The country also used to spend around $3.6 billion a year enforcing marijuana law, the American Civil Liberties Union notes
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Despite cannabis being officially illegal in Spain, the European hotspot has recently started to be branded, ‘the new Amsterdam’. This is because across Spain there are over 700 ‘Cannabis Clubs’ – these are considered legal venues to consume cannabis in because the consumption of the drug is in private, and not in public. These figures have risen dramatically in the last three years – in 2010 there were just 40 Cannabis Clubs in the whole of Spain. Recent figures also show that in Catalonia alone there are 165,000 registered members of cannabis clubs – this amounts to over 5 million euros (£4 million) in revenue each month
In December 2013, the House of Representatives and Senate passed a bill legalizing and regulating the production and sale of the drug. But the president has since postponed the legalization of cannabis until to 2015 and when it is made legal, it will be the authorities who will grow the cannabis that can be sold legally. Buyers must be 18 or older, residents of Uruguay, and must register with the authorities
Despite the fact that laws prohibiting the sale and misuse of cannabis exist and is considered a habit only entertained by lower-income groups, it is very rarely enforced. The occasional use of cannabis in community gatherings is broadly tolerated as a centuries old custom. The open use of cannabis by Sufis and Hindus as a means to induce euphoria has never been challenged by the state. Further, large tracts of cannabis grow unchecked in the wild
In 2001, Portugal became the first country in the world to decriminalize the use of all drugs, and started treating drug users as sick people, instead of criminals. However, you can still be arrested or assigned mandatory rehab if you are caught several times in possession of drugs
9/12 Puerto Rico
Although the use of cannabis is currently illegal, it is said that Puerto Rico are in the process of decriminalising it
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The US state became the first in the country to legalise marijuana in January 2014. In February 2015, President Obama recently said he expects to see more states "looking into" legalisation. However, it is illegally to grow more than six cannabis plants and to possess more than 28 grams of the drug
Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis. If you are court in California with anything up to an ounce of cannabis, you will be fine $100, but you will not get a criminal record, nor will you have to appear in court
Cannabis is grown in the wild and has been used to treat conditions such as gout and malaria. But, officially the substance is illegal to consume, possess and sell
There are currently three nobel laureates on the Salk Institute’s faculty, and among the scientists who have trained or worked there, 11 have won nobel prizes overall.
It is based in La Jolla, near San Diego in California, where marijuana was made legal in November.
However, as it receives funds from the US government, the institute is prohibited from using cannabis in experiments without authorisation. Applications can take six months to approve.
The Alzheimer’s Society acknowledged the results of the early research on its website, but warned “there is no evidence that cannabis can help to prevent the underlying causes of the disease in people”.
It also said heavy use of the drug has been linked to memory and cognitive problems.Reuse content