Medical marijuana has been popping up in the news a lot lately, as new studies continue to find evidence that cannabis has a wide variety of medical applications. The latest discovery: Cannabis can be used to heal fractures and rebuild bones. Researchers at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University, publishing their findings in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, have conducted a study to discover how the non-psychotropic components of cannabis can be applied outside of cancer, Parkinson’s, and MS treatment. Despite the surmounting evidence in favor of medical marijuana, the drug still remains Schedule 1, on par with drugs like heroine and LSD, constituting that it has no known medical application.

How it works

Researchers under Dr. Yankel Gabet of TAU’s Slacker Faculty of Medicine and the late Professor Itai Bab of Hebrew University’s Bone Laboratory, isolated the component cannabidiol (CBD) to see its effect on bone fractures. They found that when giving CBD to rats with mid-femoral fractures, the healing process of the bone was significantly sped up to about an eight-week recovery. The effects were still seen when tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the molecule within cannabis that produces a “high” effect, was removed from CBD, making the potential for bone healing treatment without psychoactive effects a possibility.

Gabet and Bab’s team are building off of studies they have conducted in the past, where they discovered that the cannabinoid receptors within our bodies both stimulate bone formation and prevent bone loss.

“We found that CBD alone makes bones stronger during healing, enhancing maturation of the collagenous matrix, which provides the basis for new mineralization of bone tissue,” Gabet said. “After being treated with CBD, the healed bone will be harder to break in the future.”

Gabet also noted that CBD, without THC, proves to be an effective therapeutic method for bone healing, without unnecessary side effects. “We found CBD alone to be sufficiently effective in enhancing fracture healing,” he said. “Other studies have also shown CBD to be a safe agent, which leads us to believe we should continue this line of study in clinical trials to assess its usefulness in improving human fracture healing.”

The team of researchers are hopeful that their new discovery may translate to cannabis treatments for diseases like osteoporosis and other bone-related diseases.

Our bodies do well with cannabis treatments

Gabet explains that our bodies are equipped to benefit from cannabis treatments; they possess a cannabinoid system that can regulate both vital and non-vital processes. “We respond to cannabis because we are built with intrinsic compounds and receptors that can also be activated by compounds in the cannabis plant,” he said.

One system in particular that they found is regulated by cannabinoids is the skeleton, allowing the active ingredients in the cannabis plant to help stimulate the growth of bone. Even when the non-psychoactive compound is introduced to the body outside of the brain, it can still affect the skeleton.

This system of receptors has also been examined recently in a study conducted by European researchers in relation to cancer treatment. Researchers previously found that THC can respond to pathways within the body to shrink tumor cells and prevent these cells from coming back. However, recently they discovered that by fostering these previously mentioned cannabinoid receptors and preventing serotonin receptors from receiving the THC within rats, they could block unwanted, psychoactive effects.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Another study by researchers of Tel Aviv University found that within animals that had multiple sclerosis, cannabinoids were able to target the inflammation response that kills the myelin sheaths of nerve cells. In doing this, symptoms like tremors and weak limbs were slowed thanks to nerves that could now communicate with one another properly. A UK study, building off of these findings, discovered that after 12 weeks of marijuana treatment, muscle stiffness in 30 percent of 300 human MS patients was relieved.

Similarly, marijuana was able to reduce tremors in 22 patients, an average of 66-year-olds who had Parkinson’s disease. These effects are all outside of cannabis’ pain relieving potential, which has been proven when treating many patients undergoing chemotherapy or who experience chronic pain disorders.

Schedule 1 Is Keeping Us From Unlocking These Benefits

“The clinical potential of cannabinoid-related compounds is simply undeniable at this point,” Gabet said. “While there is still work to be done to develop appropriate therapies, it is clear that it's possible to detach a clinical therapy objective from the psychoactivity of cannabis.”

So if we have proven that marijuana can have a medical use, why is the drug still schedule 1? And why does this law persist when research is now isolating cannabis from its psychoactive components? As little has been done in way of changing the 1970 decree that marijuana is solely a harmful drug, researchers in the United States examining the potential medical uses of marijuana have many hurdles to overcome when studying this plant.

Receiving funding and obtaining the substance for research is another difficult process. Competing for money in research is particularly challenging in and of itself, but when this research surrounds a Schedule 1 drug, the process becomes even more complicated. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), their institution represents only one of 27 centers that could support the study of the medicinal purposes of marijuana within the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Newsweek , however, states that when dealing with research involving a Schedule 1 drug, researchers wind up consulting with the NIDA in order to receive funding or the actual substance.

Within the United States, the Controlled Substances Act which mandated that cannabis be Schedule 1, also constitutes the DEA as the only authority that can give out licenses for the federally permitted growth of marijuana for research purposes. To date, only one institution is licensed by the DEA to grow marijuana for research, and that is the University of Mississippi, which is funded through the NIDA contract. The NIDA will issue this marijuana to anyone who has been cleared for approval by the FDA and DEA to conduct their research.

To get your research mission approved and funded is what proves to be especially tricky. The NIDA says that they have traditionally funded research projects that study the adverse effects of drugs and addiction as a disease. While the NIDA claims that this research often includes how the therapy potential of cannabinoids can be used for treating addiction, researchers like Don Abrams, chief of hematology and oncology at San Francisco General Hospital, have experienced difficulties receiving funding for projects that do not feature the dangers of marijuana and how to treat marijuana abuse.

“NIDA...has a congressional mandate to only study substances of abuse as substances of abuse,” Abrams says.

In order to get funding and approval, researchers often have to restructure their studies under the guise of other pretenses more suited to the NIDA’s standards. What often happens, though, is that the medicinal properties they initially sought to uncover do not receive the legitimate credit their findings are owed because it was not the full purpose of the study.

Keeping cannabis schedule 1 not only creates a friction between a federal government that claims marijuana has no medical use, and an increasing number of state governments employing medical marijuana programs, it delegitimizes cannabis’ potential. If we are truly going to unlock all cannabis treatments have to offer, we must not inhibit the research that can be done. Until then, we have no choice but to find basis for our claims internationally so that patients domestically can receive the relief they need.

Source: Kozela E, Juknat A, Kaushansky N, et al. Cannabinoids Decrease the Th17 Inflammatory Autoimmune Phenotype. Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology. 2013.

Moreno E, Lanfumey L, Pastor A, et al. Cognitive Impairment Induced by Delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol Occurs through Heteromers between Cannabinoid CB1 and Serotonin 5-HT2A Receptors. PLOS Biology. 2015.

Kogan N, Bab I, Gabet Y, et al. Cannabidiol, a Major Non-Psychotropic Cannabis Constituent Enhances Fracture Healing and Stimulates Lysyl Hydroxylase Activity in Osteoblasts. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. 2015.

Lotan I, Treves TA, Roditi Y, et al. Cannabis (medical marijuana) treatment for motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson disease: an open-label observational study. PubMed. 2014.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated the acronym for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)  as the NDIA.

This article originally incorrectly stated that the NIDA is only the source for marijuana-based research funding, when in fact there are 27 centers within the NIH that support marijuana research. The original article also did not specify that the NIDA will provide cannabis for research to those institutions whose studies have been approved by the FDA and DEA.  In addition, this article originally incorrectly stated that the NIDA’s mission was to fund studies that do not regard the potential benefits of medical marijuana. The NIDA does fund any marijuana research that meets its standards.