We have all heard about the supposed magical healing powers of cannabis, also known as marijuana.
We have also heard that it is a “gateway drug.”
The true effects of cannabis are often mired in marketing -- clouded in smoke by the claims of those for and against the legalization of the drug. This is where Steven Kinsey, associate professor of psychology at West Virginia University, enters to cut through all that smoke with cold, hard data.
“I don’t have any political stance on it,” Kinsey said. “I’m not super interested in cannabis. I’m interested in the neuroscience. The beliefs we hold should be based on data. Not the other way around.”
His research is timely as 29 states (including West Virginia) and Washington, D.C., currently allow medical cannabis.
Kinsey is a biomedical researcher with training in behavioral neuroscience. He started this journey as a teenager in Concord, Calif., where he developed a mild stomach illness that stretched into his high school years. He observed how it shaped other aspects of his life.
“My mood would change,” he said. “If my stomach hurt, I’d be better at math. But I couldn’t write as creatively. That was fascinating. Whatever was going on in my stomach was affecting my thoughts. That got me interested in the mind-body connection.”
Today his research interests center on stress, inflammation and emotionality, with the ultimate goal of identifying safe, effective pharmacological treatments for people suffering from related conditions.
In his lab, he experiments with mice, which either consume or get injected with controlled amounts of extracted, purified cannabinoids — chemical compounds secreted by cannabis flowers. The most common cannabinoids are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).
Results of Kinsey’s research have been promising. In one study, low doses of THC, without significant sedative effects, decreased pain responses in mice. This is a hopeful sign for patients experiencing neuropathic pain, or conditions such as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and diabetic neuropathy.
In the mice, Kinsey found that combining endocannabinoids with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, creates a “drug synergy” that reduces neuropathic pain.
Endocannabinoids equate to the body’s naturally-produced THC. Yes, really. The chemical compounds are created in the body with the help of fatty acids and have anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, much of Kinsey’s research focuses on these cannabinoids instead of the plant-based kind.
In another test, the effects of morphine withdrawal were reduced by increasing the endocannabinoid level, Kinsey said.
“The withdrawal and addictive properties are nowhere near what they are with opioids,” Kinsey said of cannabinoids. “But that’s not to say there are no addictive properties of cannabis.
“Being a researcher here in Appalachia, I’m concerned about any type of drug being introduced as a great painkiller with no side effects. We’ve gone down that road before. There’s a lot of marketing for medical cannabis, but there’s not enough research to back up the claims. The big caveat — or warning — is that people really aren’t talking about the addictive qualities of cannabis.”
While the THC in cannabis produces a mind-altering “high,” CBD does not. Using CBD instead of THC could lead to less abuse, Kinsey believes, but more research needs to be conducted. While CBD is readily available in dietary supplement form, not much is known about its benefits or side effects, he added.
“There is research that shows the potential medical benefits,” he said. “But there’s also research that shows withdrawal and dependence. We take a holistic, unbiased view. There are people who come to conferences who are biased, and they’ll see a piece of research and go ‘A-ha! It cures cancer!’ But it’s more complicated than that.”
Kinsey thinks lax attitudes toward marijuana use have emerged as a result of years of outrageous claims and propaganda from anti-drug advocates. One classic example is 1930s film “Reefer Madness,” originally funded by a church group to warn parents of the dangers of cannabis. In the movie, marijuana is attributed to be the cause of crimes such as a hit-and-run, murder, suicide and rape.
“They said, ‘If you smoke marijuana, you’ll go out and murder somebody’ or whatever happens in the movie,” Kinsey said. “That’s so outlandish. So then, people dismiss any dangers of it entirely. It’s also probably not this gateway drug that they told us about in the ’80s. If you smoke marijuana, the next thing you know, you’re using heroin. It doesn’t work that way.”
Kinsey, who serves as treasurer of the non-political International Cannabinoid Research Society, hopes that when and if policymakers consider cannabis laws, they’ll bring experts like him and other researchers and physicians to the table for guidance.
“We want to inform the general conversation about the safety of cannabis and to reduce human suffering,” Kinsey said. “Everything we do in the lab with mice has the end-goal of establishing safe treatments for different ailments people have. That makes it worthwhile to me.”