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What is Cannabis?
The cannabis plant, also referred to as marijuana or hemp, is one of the oldest psychoactive herbs known to humanity. Two subspecies of the plant exist: cannabis sativa and cannabis indica.(1)

Cannabis sativa is the more widespread of the two and is a tall, loosely branched plant that may grow as high as 20 feet. It typically has less than one percent delta-9-tertahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, and a much higher content of cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive compound that may modify some of THC's euphoric effects.(2)

Cannabis indica is a smaller, bushier plant that produces a psychoactive resin. Cannabis indica typically has between one and five percent THC content and is the type of cannabis used for medicinal purposes.(3)

The family of chemically related 21-carbon alkaloids found uniquely in the cannabis plant are known as cannabinoids.(4) Scientists have identified more than 60 different cannabinoids, but for years research focused on THC. Only quite recently have scientists begun studying whether additional, nonpsychoactive cannabinoids may also hold medicinal value. For example, preliminary research indicates that CBD works as an anti-convulsant(5) and anti-oxidant(6), cannabichromine (CBC) is anti-inflammatory(7) and cannabinol (CBN) may have tumor-reducing properties(8). The amounts and proportions of these and other cannabinoids vary from strain to strain and may be adjusted by breeding.(9)

Although written references to smoking cannabis for medicinal and other purposes date back more than 2,000 years(10), scientists only began to understand how cannabis interacts with the brain this decade. In 1990, scientists discovered nerve receptors in the brain that are stimulated by cannabinoids.(11) These receptors are located "mainly in the cerebral cortex and in the basal ganglia and cerebellum, parts of the brain associated with body movements."(12) Some experts believe that the receptors in the cortex may explain the cognitive effects of cannabis, and those found in the basal ganglia and cerebellum may account for its effects on muscle spasms and other body movement disorders.(13)

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Important
The use of cannabis, even for medical purposes, is illegal. All research as part of the UK Medicinal Cannabis Project is carried out under government licences. The Project does not condone or encourage the use of cannabis outside approved clinic trials.
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References used above
  1. L. Grinspoon and J. Bakalar, Marihuana: "The Forbidden Medicine" (second edition), New Haven, CT: Yale University Press (1999), 1.
  2. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Ninth Report. "Cannabis: The Scientific And Medical Evidence", London: United Kingdom (1998), Chapter 3: Section 3.2
  3. L. Grinspoon and J. Bakalar, Marihuana: "The Forbidden Medicine (second edition)", New Haven, CT: Yale University Press (1999), 2.
  4. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Ninth Report,"Cannabis: The Scientific And Medical Evidence", London: United Kingdom (1998), Chapter 3: Section 3.2
  5. J. Cunha, et al., "Chronic Administration of Cannabidiol to Healthy Volunteers and Epileptic Patients," Pharmacology 21 (1980): 175-185; P. Consroe and S. Snider, "Therapeutic Potential of Cannabinoids in Neurological Disorders," in "Cannabinoids as Therapeutic Agents", ed. R. Mechoulam, Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press (1986), 21-50; P. Consroe, et al., "Anticonvulsant Nature of Marijuana Smoking," Journal of the American Medical Association 234 (1975): 306-307; Interview with Mahmoud Elsohly, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Marijuana Project, on December 19, 1995, in the Journal of The International Hemp Association, 3 (1996): 24-28.
  6. A. Hampson, et al., "Cannabidiol and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol are neuroprotective antioxidants," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95 (1998): 8268-8273.
  7. Interview with Mahmoud Elsohly.
  8. L. Harris et al., "Anti-Tumor Properties of Cannabinoids," in "The Pharmacology of Marihuana", ed. M. Braude et al., 2 vols., New York: Raven Press (1976) 2: 773-776 as cited by L. Grinspoon and J. Bakalar in "Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine (second edition)", 173.
  9. House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Ninth Report,"Cannabis: The Scientific And Medical Evidence", London: United Kingdom (1998), Chapter 3: Section 3.2
  10. B. Zimmerman et al., "Is Marijuana the Right Medicine for You? A Factual Guide to Medical Uses of Marijuana", New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing (1998), 16.
  11. L. Grinspoon and J. Bakalar, "Marihuana: The Forbidden Medicine (second edition)", 2.
  12. Ibid., 3
  13. Ibid.