I walked into a cavernous meeting room at a hotel in Baltimore and encountered the biggest collection of brainy brain researchers that I had ever witnessed. Cerebral cortexes were literally throbbing with talk of endocannabinoid systems, custom-built experimental mice, receptor sequestration, hippocampuses, amygdalas, and whether there would be enough potent coffee to keep everybody awake during three days of formal and informal presentations, symposiums and panel discussions.
Underneath the technowords and chemistry equations, the ICRS conference was basically about marijuana ? what can be derived from it, how those derivatives (called cannabinoids) affect the body at a cellular and systemic level, how the body’s reaction to cannabinoids can be used to decode its reaction to disease and other drugs, how cannabinoids can be manipulated and reconfigured to achieve medical and research goals.
The tenth annual ICRS meeting cast of characters included legendary cannabinoid researchers such as Dr Raphael Mechoulam, the US government’s marijuana farm boss Dr Mahmoud ElSohly, and maverick physician-businessmen like GW Pharmaceuticals’ Dr Geoffrey Guy (profiled in CC#26).
The scene was surreal, politically charged, and slightly intimidating. Most American cannabinoid researchers are funded by the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), other government agencies, and pharmaceutical companies. Few of these funding sources are friendly to smoked marijuana or the marijuana legalization movement, and as I was to find out later, some officials representing NIDA are openly hostile to whole marijuana and those who believe that individual citizens should be able to do high level cannabinoid research in the privacy of their own brains.
Still, Dr Mechoulam listened patiently with apparent interest as grow guru Ed Rosenthal talked about marijuana varieties and offered him a copy of The New Prescription, Marijuana as Medicine, a new book published by Rosenthal’s Quick Trading publishing company.
Dr Guy, a treating physician, pharmaceutical products developer, and British pot greenhouse sponsor, found himself discussing rat brain slices and marijuana cultivation techniques with doctoral candidates.
Some NIDA representatives, who rudely refused to let me interview them or write down their names (they claimed their handlers in Washington DC prohibited them from speaking to journalists), found themselves confronted by Jeff Jones, the boy wonder head of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative (OCBC), who told them that their “abuse” paradigm was unscientific and harmful, especially to patients that Jones’ OCBC tries so hard to assist by providing high quality medical grade whole marijuana, derivative products, and harm reduction devices.
ICRS treasurer Dr Richard Musty stood with Scottish researcher Dr Roger Pertwee (profiled in CC#25) and ICRS Administrative Director Diane Mahadeen, talking about neurotransmitters, absent colleagues, and whether the host hotel would be able to handle the conference’s seating and feeding requirements.
A bevy of international researcher-babes, consisting of beautiful, bright, young female cannabinoid researchers, provided grace notes to the gathering, which otherwise would have been dominated by receding hairlines and graying hair of the senior geniuses who have been researching cannabinoids since the 1960’s.
Image and reality
The ICRS is an eclectic organization. Its scientists and researchers are extremely well qualified academically and professionally, but instead of doing mainstream pharmaceutical, behavioral or physiological research, they study cannabinoids. This means they fight an image problem because cannabinoids come from marijuana.
Publicly, they present themselves as straights, no different from other scientists. They’re offended when peers, corporations, media or government agencies view their specialization as “Cheech and Chong” research. Musty recalled occasions when ICRS had trouble booking potential conference sites, for example, because hotel reps didn’t want a “cannabis conference” at their facility.
Behind the straight arrow facade, however, I found many ICRS members are closet radicals, iconoclasts, pioneers. Some of them even smoke marijuana! They are a small cabal, interested in constituents of a plant that has been slandered and persecuted for 70 years. They have heard drug czars and other prohibitionists describe cannabis as an evil weed with no medical efficacy. They have seen pharmaceutical companies and doctors, who had cannabis extracts in their pharmacopoeia as recently as the 1970’s, gradually move away from cannabinoids in favor of totally artificial drugs.
Now, ICRS members are feeling vindicated, as more and more scientists and capitalists are acknowledging that cannabinoids, even derived from raw plant materials, are a fascinating, useful and potentially profitable source of substances with an almost infinite variety of medical and research applications.
It’s been a long road. Cannabinoid research began in the 1940’s, when an American isolated CBD, CBN and THC from plant materials. The next big breakthrough was courtesy of Dr Mechoulam’s lab in Israel in 1964, where Mechoulam first detailed the exact chemical structure of THC.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, pharmaceutical companies and researchers concentrated on creating synthetic substances that mimicked cannabinoids, but the most important discovery came in 1988 when Allyn Howlett and Bill Devane discovered the existence of cannabinoid receptors in the brain. In 1992, Devane was again instrumental in another big breakthrough: he and Mechoulam discovered that the body manufactures its own endogenous cannabinoid, arachidonylehtnaolamide, which they dubbed anandamide, from the Sanskrit word for bliss.
By the mid-90’s, researchers had cloned cannabinoid receptors, designed substances that prevent cannabinoids from acting on receptors, and established that cannabinoids and the cannabinoid systems influence virtually every major neurotransmitter function in the body. From mood to muscle tone, from anxiety to appetite, cannabinoid systems are integral to an organism’s core functions.
According to Dr Richard Musty, cannabinoid scientists began networking in the 1970’s. In the mid-80’s, Musty got together with two other cannabinoidists to plan a formal conference in Melbourne, Australia which took place in 1987. Later, the widely respected Virginia-based scientist, Dr Billy Martin, formed the International Cannabinoid Study Group, which met in Virginia and more exotic locales, like Crete.
In 1991, Martin, Musty and a few other dedicated networkers chartered the ICRS; by 1992, the organization was growing in stature. It has increased its membership every year since 1991, and has had yearly conferences in Cape Cod, Acapulco, France, Montreal, and other beautiful locations.
The politics of science
Much of this year’s ICRS conference consisted of oral presentations in a large darkened meeting room. Every afternoon, however, researchers conducted “poster sessions” during which posters were pinned on mobile walls in the hallways, with research authors explaining or arguing about what they had studied.
About 60% of what I heard at these sessions was too technical for me. My lack of comprehension was compounded by the fact that whenever I joined an audience containing NIDA reps at a poster session, the NIDAites would quickly move away. I wondered if I had bad breath. When I confided my fears to a senior scientist, he said, “Have you noticed that you are the only journalist here? This group isn’t very eager for publicity.”
Some researchers were kind enough to tell me what they were talking about. Emmanuel Onaivi, a Vanderbilt University researcher and African national who is also affiliated with NIDA, said his research indicates that genetic differences based on ethnicity might create different types of CB1 receptors.
“The expression of the receptors, which is gene-modulated, has mutated among different groups,” he said. “There may be differences in how one group’s receptors react to cannabinoids. These differences might explain why some people are more prone to abuse than others, or why different people experience cannabinoids in idiosyncratic ways.”
A few posters away, a handsome 27-year-old doctoral candidate named Jason Schechter told a group of people what he does to rats.
“We inject substances into rats that create two acute pain states,” he explained. “One state makes normally painful stimuli even more painful. Another state, called allodynia, makes skin so sensitive that in humans people cannot even wear clothing. I administered HU210, a cannabinoid agonist that is 500 times more potent than THC. It completely got rid of both these conditions. Dr Gabriel Nahas [the infamous anti-marijuana scientist]says cannabinoids have no pain-relieving effects. But I had a discourse with him about this, and he had little to challenge me with.”
Many people looked forward to the Friday lunch session because NIDA head Alan Leshner was scheduled to speak.
Leshner and NIDA are controversial. Cannabinoid researchers take NIDA’s money, but many wish they didn’t have to. Privately, some admitted that NIDA money automatically skews research proposals and outcomes. Dr Donald Abrams, a San Francisco AIDS researcher who recently completed a clinical trial involving cannabis, makes no attempt to hide his opinion that NIDA interferes with expedient approval and facilitation of marijuana research.
When Leshner strolled into the hallway toward the main conference room, he was surrounded by well-wishers, but was also met by Dr Tod Mikuriya, the courageous California pot doctor who has been recommending marijuana to patients for 20 years. Mikuriya tried to engage Leshner in a dialogue about compassion, science and law enforcement. Leshner stood mutely with a smile frozen on his face.
During Leshner’s 40-minute speech, it became apparent why he’d shut Mikuriya down. The NIDA head, a former acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health who has studied the biological basis for human behavior, stunned us by reciting reefer madness propaganda.
In regards to medical marijuana, he intoned that NIDA was going to “replace anecdote with science.” He also claimed marijuana was addictive, and then moved on to what really seemed to excite him: NIDA’s new public school propaganda package, in which children are lied to about marijuana under the guise of a program designed to encourage them to enjoy science!
When I tried to take a picture of Leshner, he barked at me to stop.
As he made his way out of the building after his speech, I asked him to explain his comments about marijuana.
“You really believe marijuana is addictive?” I asked.
“Of course it is, no doubt about it, absolutely,” he responded, trying to move past me.
“What evidence do you have to support that?”
“Look,” he said, side-stepping so he could get out the door, “I’ve had to answer these questions 20,000 times. I don’t need to answer you. I’m tired of these questions. Look at our website. Goodbye.”
A jones for real bud
As the conference drew to a close, OCBC’s Jeff Jones pulled off a major coup.
To my knowledge, all the other presenters had been scientists or doctoral candidates. Somehow, Jones, who has no advanced degree or science background, got permission to give one of the last presentations of the conference.
He was dressed in a suit as he strode to the front of the packed meeting room. Only one other researcher, from Holland, ironically, was on deck, and then it was on to the closing banquet.
Jones carried a small wooden case with him. He opened it and produced an odd contraption: a high-tech vaporizer, powered by a heat gun. Jones had demonstrated it in Rosenthal’s room. It was definitely a harm reduction device that eliminated particulates and tars the government seems so worried about, while allowing a healthy cannabinoid profile to shine through.
Announcing himself as the director of a medical marijuana club, Jones demonstrated the device the best he could, although the bowl was empty.
Midway through his presentation, several female NIDA bureaucrats got up loudly from their chairs near the front of the room, gathered their belongings, and stormed out.
Dr Mikuriya, who earlier that afternoon made his own presentation, during which he shocked the audience by saying marijuana’s status should be reset to the way it was before 1937, urged me to ask the women what they objected to.
The trio were talking in hushed, disparaging tones when I approached them. When they saw me coming, they covered their nametags and said they didn’t want to talk to me.
“Did you have some objection to Mr Jones’s device?” I asked.
“We don’t have to talk to you,” a portly woman said. “We’re government employees. Get away.”
Reflecting on the incident later, Jones pretty much summed up how I felt about the entire conference.
“There are obviously a lot of talented, dedicated and sharp people here,” he said. “Almost all of them were cool, open-minded and professional. I was impressed by how much they know and how creative they are in their research. But there’s a disconnect between what they know and what I know. NIDA is hung up on the abuse angle. They don’t realize or care that people all over the world enjoy the plant and use it to make them feel better. My clients don’t need somebody to tell them which receptor site mediates that feeling. I think ICRS should put the cannabis back into cannabinoids.”