Since you’re here, you’re likely somewhat familiar with cannabinoids and their potential health benefits. However, with the truly mystifying amount of incorrect information out there, getting up to speed on the truth behind medical cannabinoids is surprisingly difficult. To make things easier, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide on cannabinoids so that you can decide whether the substance is right for you.
With this guide, you’ll learn all you need to know about cannabinoids, including what they are, why they might be good for you, how long they’ve been around, whether they’re legal, and how you can get legal access where you live.
Read through this article to get all the details, or skip to the section you’re most interested in:
- What are Cannabinoids?
- How Long have Cannabinoids Been Around?
- Where are Cannabinoids Legal?
- How Do You Get Legal Cannabinoids?
- What Are the Benefits of Using Cannabis as Medicine?
- What if You Can’t Get Legal Cannabis?
What are Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids refer to the natural compounds that are extracted from cannabis plants like hemp and marijuana. When people refer to medical cannabis, they’re talking about using the whole plant or these cannabinoids for the treatment of various ailments or conditions.
Often, people become confused between the terms cannabis and marijuana. Cannabis is a category for a plant species that includes both hemp and marijuana. For a lot of people, the best way to think about cannabis is with an analogy: hemp and marijuana are to cannabis as lemons and oranges are to citrus. Two related but different plants, from the same “family.”
The characteristic that defines hemp from marijuana is the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound in cannabis that gets users high. Hemp is almost devoid of THC but often high in another cannabinoid – cannabidiol (CBD). Hemp has 0.3 percent THC or less while the threshold for Marijuana starts at a THC concentration of 0.31 percent or higher. Both forms of cannabis, hemp and marijuana, have been shown to contain medically beneficial levels of differing cannabinoids, active compounds found in the cannabis plant.
Cannabis plants contain over 85 cannabinoids, some of which have been found to have therapeutically beneficial properties. CBD and THC are the two major cannabinoids that through academic and scientific studies have shown to possess the most therapeutic properties. However, several other cannabinoids, like cannabigerol (CBG) and cannabinol (CBN), also exhibit health benefits.
Each of these cannabinoids interact directly with the body’s endocannabinoid system – a signaling network found within every mammalian species on Earth. The system features two cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2 receptors, which cannabinoids like THC and CBD “dock” with to provide their therapeutic effects.
THC, the mind-altering cannabinoid, has shown to increase appetite, reduce muscle control problems, and reduce nausea, pain, and inflammation. The non-psychoactive compound CBD has shown to reduce pain and inflammation, as well as be effective in killing certain cancer cells, controlling epileptic seizures, and treating mental illness.
To date, cannabis has not been recognized or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food or medicine, but the agency has approved some cannabis-based medications for distribution in the U.S. In addition, over half the states and territories in the U.S. have legalized cannabis for medical use, as long as patients have registered to obtain their state’s cannabis “card”.
How Long Have Cannabinoids Been Around?
Cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes since at least the time of ancient China. Cannabis and its therapeutic benefits were first described in ancient Chinese texts, with references made about its ability to treat gout, rheumatism, constipation, and senility. Chinese Emperor Shennong, who was also a pharmacologist, wrote about using cannabis for treatment purposes in a book published in 2737 BC.
With regard to the United States’ pharmacological system, cannabis was long included as a viable treatment option. It wasn’t until 1937 when, in defiance of the American Medical Association (AMA), the U.S. passed a federal law banning cannabis. According to Americans for Safe Access, from that point on cannabis was only legally available to a small number of patients through a federally organized program called the Investigational New Drug (IND) compassionate access research program. In effect, the IND program allowed patients to receive up to nine pounds of cannabis from the government each year, in 1976.
Despite the IND program, the vast majority of Americans found themselves shut out of access to medical cannabis. Then, in the late 1990s, voters began to demand legalized medical cannabis. California was the first state to establish such a program with a voter initiative that passed in 1996. In the 20 years that have followed the historic passing of California’s proposition 215, other states followed California’s lead, establishing medical cannabis laws that allow patients access to legal cannabis with a doctor’s recommendation.
Today, 29 states and the District of Columbia allow patients to legally obtain and use medical cannabis, bringing potential access to over half of all American citizens. Despite the fact that cannabis continues to remain federally illegal, in October of 2009 the U.S. Department of Justice announced that they would not pursue medical cannabis participants or distributors who comply with state laws.
Where Are Cannabinoids Legal?
Cannabis laws are typically created in one of two ways: either through a voter backed initiative like in California or through a state’s legislative body as in Pennsylvania. Voter initiatives must be approved to be added to ballots and presented to voters on election years, while state lawmakers can introduce a medical cannabis bill whenever the state legislatures are in session.
So far, 29 states have established medical cannabis programs. These states include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia. In addition, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico allow medical cannabis for patients.
Additional states, while not offering comprehensive medical cannabis programs, have approved cannabis- based “low THC, high cannabidiol (CBD)” products for limited medical purposes. These states include Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Alternatively, CBD oil products that are derived from hemp are legal to purchase and use under federal law without a visit to a doctor, a medical cannabis card, or paying a state enrollment fee. Individual state laws are dynamic and individual states may govern hemp-derived CBD. In most cases, hemp CBD oil products are legally available.
How Do You Get Legal Cannabinoids?
Cannabinoids extracted from imported hemp are legally available in most major markets, regardless of a prescription.
Cannabinoids derived from marijuana, however, are only legally available in the states and territories that have established medical or recreational cannabis programs. The conditions and ailments that are approved for medical cannabis treatment vary, so you’ll need to first determine whether your condition is included on your respective state’s list of qualifying conditions.
The rules and requirements for acquiring legal medical cannabis also fluctuate widely between each individual state and territory.
In general, you’ll need to visit your doctor who, if feeling that you and your condition would benefit from medical cannabis, will write you a recommendation. Because the FDA does not consider cannabis an approved medication, your doctor cannot prescribe it and your insurance will not cover it. Your doctor’s recommendation, however, authorizes you to move forward in the approval process.
In some states, like California, a signed doctor’s recommendation (and a state photo ID) is enough to gain access to medical cannabis dispensaries (authorized Cannabis distributors) and offers some protections for patients when purchasing and transporting their cannabis.
Other states will require you to obtain a state issued medical cannabis “card”. Often this will include being placed in the state’s respective record system. You will then be allowed to buy cannabis from a state approved dispensary or (in some states) through a delivery service. Depending on your state of residence, there may be an enrollment fee needed to apply for a medical cannabis card, costing up to $200.
Once you have access to a cannabis distributor, you’ll have the option of different types of medical cannabis products. Dried flower is still the most popular form, but a growing number of states have banned smokeable cannabis in their programs. Other choices include tincture sprays, capsules, vapes, concentrated extracts, and edibles. For those looking for external applications, balms, salves, and lotions can be rubbed directly into the muscles, joints, and skin for focused relief. There are even dermal patches that can be placed on the skin for delayed release through the day.
What Are the Benefits of Using Cannabis as Medicine?
While the benefits of medical cannabis have been studied since the 1940s, the most groundbreaking discoveries about cannabis and its therapeutic effects have only emerged in the last decade or so as interest in the beneficial properties of cannabinoids has grown.
Recent studies suggest that cannabis and its cannabinoids have the ability to:
- Slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases
- Reduce the number and severity of debilitating epileptic seizures
- Reduce muscle spasms experienced by those with multiple sclerosis
- Kill or limit the growth of cancer cells
- Provide anxiety relief and reduce nightmares for those with post-traumatic stress disorder
- Minimize neurological damage following spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries
In addition, cannabis has long been shown to effectively mollify both pain and nausea, making it a potentially powerful therapeutic option for numerous medical conditions and for patients undergoing chemotherapy or traditional AIDS/HIV treatments.
More than 20,000 modern peer-reviewed scientific articles on the pharmacology of cannabis and its cannabinoids have been published by medical journals.
Biotech firms in the U.S. and internationally are currently pursuing the development of cannabis-based medicines aimed at a number of conditions, including epilepsy, psoriasis and eczema, and multiple sclerosis, by isolating specific cannabinoids within the cannabis plant for focused relief.
What if You Can’t Get Legal Cannabis?
If you’re unable to get access to cannabinoids derived from marijuana, you still can obtain CBD hemp oil, the natural botanical extract of the hemp plant. CBD hemp oil can be purchased and used without violating state or federal laws regarding cannabis. Keep in mind that individual state laws are dynamic and individual states may govern hemp-derived CBD.
CBD hemp oil is derived from the hemp plant, a particular variety of cannabis. While you can find hemp oil in many local stores, store-bought hemp oil is usually derived from hemp seeds and doesn’t contain the significant concentration of CBD that pure CBD hemp oil contains.
Hemp oil extracted from the stalk, instead of the seed, is abundant in CBD, as well as essential vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, terpenes, flavonoids, fiber, protein, and other trace cannabinoids. Like medical cannabis, CBD hemp oil products come in a range of applications, like capsules, topicals, vapes, tinctures, energy chews, and even body care products.
There’s a wealth of information about cannabinoids available. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out some of our other content:
- Summary of Conditions Affected by Cannabinoids and the Endocannabinoid System
- Summary of Cannabinoids Laws by State and Country