Ganja medicine in Jamaica
Your eyes are infused with a fluid called aqueous humor that keeps them round, nourished and juicy. The pressure inside your eyes is called intraocular pressure, and is partially the result of a balance between the production, inflow and outflow of aqueous humor. If this balance is upset and your intraocular pressure rises to abnormally high levels, you are a victim of glaucoma.
As in the case of Robert Randall, president of Alliance for Cannabis Therapeutics and the first US glaucoma sufferer to win formal government approval for using cannabis as a glaucoma buster, raised eye pressure leads to destruction of the retina and other important parts of the eye. You gradually lose vision, and eventually may become totally blind.
EYE AND EYE
Dr Manley West is an emeritus professor and administrator who runs a pharmacology lab at the University of the West Indies (UWI) campus in Kingston. He has worked with ophthalmologist Dr Albert Lockhart on pioneering research that turns raw ganja into specialty medicines for glaucoma and other disorders.
West and Lockhart were trained at prestigious academies in England, Scotland and the United States. West has been the head of UWI's pharmacology department, and has nearly 40 years of experience in medicine and health. Lockhart has 36 years experience as a researcher and ophthalmologist. The lauded duo has received two of Jamaica's highest medical honors: the Order of Merit for Medicine and the Musgrave Gold Medal. Why were they honored? Because they created Canasol, a ganja-based medicine that helps decrease intraocular pressure with none of the side effects caused by other treatments.
West explained that he and Lockhart began studying cannabis-glaucoma pharmacology in the early 1970's. Scientists had long known that cannabis lowered intraocular pressure, but instead of utilizing whole smoked cannabis, American researchers spent millions of dollars on a poorly-designed topical THC eyedrop treatment that had caused eye irritation and failed to decrease intraocular pressure.
While Randall smoked ganja, found it a miracle medicine, and fought the US government's attempts to prevent him from using it, West and Lockhart were doing innovative experiments to determine which ganja constituents were responsible for marijuana's anti-glaucoma effects. The Jamaican government granted them an official new drug certification for Canasol in February 1983.
"It was a breakthrough," West explained. "I had long been interested in finding therapeutic compounds derived from natural origins. Glaucoma hits blacks sooner in life, progresses faster, and more often results in blindness. About 100,000 of our 3 million island population has it. Other glaucoma medications produced side effects, and the only other treatment was surgery, which is also risky. We wanted a safer, more affordable medicine for Jamaicans. Canasol appears to be the answer. It works within minutes to lower pressure, even in patients who have rare forms of glaucoma or have not responded well to other treatments."
Dr Lockhart, who resides in Jamaica and in Dallas, Texas, said he first became interested in ganja's possible medical benefits in 1971.
"The fishermen told us that ganja improved their vision at night," Lockhart explained. "Some people had dismissed that as only an imagined improvement, but we looked into it, and found that ganja was affecting blood flow to the retina."
Although early research and cultural lore indicated promising medical uses for ganja, West and Lockhart found their development of cannabis therapeutics complicated by drug war politics, as well as the daunting realities of pharmaceutical research, development and approval processes.
"Jamaica has a traditional ganja culture," said Lockhart, who augmented his medical training by earning an MBA in 1986. "That may have made it easier for us to get approval, beginning in 1972, for strictly-regulated research protocols and collection of ganja for medical purposes. We also received government business assistance in the 1980's that helped form a corporation to assist in manufacture and marketing."
Citing drug war politics and fear of persecution, West and Lockhart were extremely reluctant to discuss details of their Jamaican ganja research, but reports they've published regarding animal and human test procedures used to measure the efficacy of ganja pharmaceuticals indicates they had access to high-quality marijuana, and that constituents from the miracle plant were isolated via physical, chemical, temperature, and filtration manipulations, then given to people and animals with glaucoma and other ailments.
Lockhart indicated that Jamaican government agencies and officials, including the Ministry of Security and Justice, the Ministry of Environmental Control and Health, the Police Commissioner, and local police agencies were instrumental in ensuring a safe, legal supply of raw cannabis. Ironically, their source is plants seized from other ganja growers.
"We have Jamaica pretty well mapped out," Lockhart explained. "The police know that if they seize what looks to be high grade ganja, they are to call us so we can determine if this is a possible research material source."
In an article published in the West Indies Medical Journal in 1978, West wrote: "Sun-dried whole plant (cannabis sativa) was obtained from the Police Department. The material was carefully examined for extraneous matter. A macerate was made which contained 5% w/v of whole cannabis. The solution was filtered using Whatman's No. 1 filter paper and the solution rapidly sterilized using a sintered glass filter (5 on 3) with a porosity of 1 to 1.5 microns. The sterilized solution was distributed aseptically into eye drop containers and stored in a cool dark place above freezing point."
Neither West nor Lockhart would elaborate on the exact procedures used to transform the above-mentioned solution into a prescription medicine, although Lockhart did say that a stable "powder" had been made in sufficient quantity to supply the experimenters with all the "principle" they needed to conduct numerous experiments and to make stable pharmaceutical preparations. Canasol has been stored at varying temperatures for eight years, West noted, and had no significant loss of potency.
During the 1980's and 90's, West said, thousands of vials of Canasol have been tested and used as a topical eye medicine in Jamaica, Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and other areas.
"It has no reported side-effects," West emphatically stated, "which makes it safer than the standard chemical glaucoma medications. It acts very quickly, both as a preventive and in situations of acute onset, to lower intraocular pressure. Patients report excellent results and ease of use, and doctors are quite happy to have Canasol in their therapeutic arsenal. It is part of the curriculum in medical schools, during courses that discuss drugs affecting the eye."
With Canasol increasingly accepted by doctors and patients worldwide, the Jamaican researchers turned their attention to other medical uses of ganja constituents. In 1990, they released Asmasol, a cannabis derivative that helps relieve asthma attacks.
"Asmasol is useful during both the acute phase of an asthma attack, and as a preventive during the impending phase," West explained, adding that he and Lockhart have also created Canavert, a ganja-based treatment for motion sickness, and are working on Cantimol, another glaucoma medication slated for imminent release.
More research is planned, as the imaginative team looks into ganja's effects on nausea, arthritis, pain and migraine headaches.
"This plant has hundreds of potentially helpful constituents," West explains. "It is useful for many conditions, and is a storehouse of amazing proportions."
BLINDED IN BABYLON
The US Institute of Medicine report issued in early 1999 claimed that smoking cannabis causes health and psychological problems, and recommended that "safer" cannabis delivery systems be developed.
It would appear that the medicines developed by Lockhart and West met those criteria years ago.
"Everybody wants to find out how we got rid of the psychoactive components and isolated the active principles," Lockhart explained. "They even went to our manufacturer and government officials, trying to get information. They are confused by a mindset that holds that THC is the only active principle. But there is more than one variety of this plant, and many different combinations. We have tested these principles on every part of the body, including injecting into the brain. We have reams and reams of data on how this works. We have had no reports that these therapies have a systemic affect on patients in a way that would be described as psychoactive."
But reams of data didn't impress the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means that Canasol and other ganja pharmaceuticals developed by the Jamaican researchers cannot be legally obtained as prescription drugs in the US. Lockhart admits to being frustrated about the FDA blockade, but says the agency estimated that it would cost the Jamaican team tens of millions of dollars to pay for research needed to obtain US approval of Canasol.
"The FDA doesn't recognize foreign experiments. It doesn't consider our dogs, rats, cats and people as valid test subjects, because they are not American test subjects," Lockhart quipped. "They seemed interested in having us hand it over to a big corporation. It was actually quite funny, when some companies wanted to pay us a pittance for our work, to give up all our rights to it. An insult really. And the FDA policy was to deny the medical value of any natural derivative of cannabis, but they allowed the synthetic derivative, Marinol, and that derivative was of very limited application. US medical journals also discriminate against research done outside the United States. We are two little guys from a Third World country. We do this for knowledge and to help people. We test our discoveries and find those that work safely, then we publish the results. But we do not have enough money to challenge the US authorities."
Lockhart and West reported that clinical trials and anecdotal information indicate that Canasol is safe and effective. Lockhart said that the only problems they'd encountered occurred when a few vials of Canasol produced mild, temporary eye discomfort. The problem was corrected by creating a different type of vial.
* The cannabis-based medicines are available to doctors and patients with some difficulty. Interested persons should contact Sharon Banks of Medi-Grace Pharmaceuticals: tel (876) 929-0528.
* Dr West: Dept of Pharmacology, University of West Indes, Mona, Kingston, Jamaica.
* Dr Lockhart: fax (972) 669-8083