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Unraveling the Science Behind Ganja

T

he University of the West Indies has revived the ganja research programme it began in the 1970s as it prepares to launch Jamaica as a global “powerhouse” for cannabis research; as famous for its products and services as it already is for reggae and the good ‘ol sensi weed’. The UWI Mona Campus in Kingston is one of the few places in the world where marijuana research can take place from plant breeding, through to clinical trials. The country’s international reputation—the ganja culture, music and athletic success—has brought many to The UWI in search of research collaborations. There is new energy and excitement as researchers leverage over four decades of experience in cannabis research, even as they await the completion of regulations that will guide recent amendments to the Dangerous Drug Act. “We have the knowledge and we have the expertise to make Jamaica and the Mona Campus a major centre, the leading authority and we are positioned to use our Jamaica brand to drive the programme,” Principal of The UWI Mona Campus, Professor Archibald McDonald, said in an interview with The Pelican. Best known for the euphoric effect of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), Cannabis is said to contain more than 60 other chemical compounds. It is these other elements that The UWI and its partners want to exploit in its mission to treat a host of complaints for which modern medicines have no answer. Researchers are particularly excited by the possibilities of the cannabinoids (CBDs), which are believed to hold most of the medicinal properties in cannabis, McDonald said. He explained that the newest to be discovered, the terpenes, work with other compounds in what is known as “the entourage effect”. Scientists at The UWI’s research partner Citiva Medical are also excited by the promise of ‘terpenes’, particularly after the team successfully developed cannabis-derived products to treat a number of ailments. Citiva is the company behind Charlotte’s Web - a strain of cannabis with less than 0.3 % THC—which is being used to treat paediatric epilepsy.

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Prior to being treated with the cannabis extract, 8-year-old Charlotte Figi reportedly suffered up to 300 seizures a day due to a rare form of epilepsy, even while on traditional medicines. The extract from Charlotte’s Web and continued success of the treatments using the oil is one of several success stories from Citiva. The strain of cannabis named Charlotte’s Web for the little American girl, is being grown at The UWI and will be studied with a view to standardising the extracts. The aim is to ensure that every cannabis plant used for medicine has exactly “the same levels of the specific chemical compounds” required to target specific illnesses, with the same results. In the medicinal cannabis world, Citiva’s executive director Josh Stanley is a rock star. Described as ‘telegenic’ in his approach to the marketing of cannabis as the future of medicine, both Stanley and the equally visionary McDonald share the belief that research in cannabis goes way beyond smoking the weed. “We are interested in the whole plant, getting away from the single compound and into the promise of its biology—a multi-compound approach to its natural properties,” Stanley said. McDonald noted: “We are using our permit effectively to help us to establish a centre of excellence in cannabis research in the Caribbean. We want the Mona Campus to become the leader in Cannabis research internationally”. And there is no shortage of researchers willing to help him build The UWI’s reputation and join the quest to find treatment for a long list of complaints. In addition to examining the use of cannabis in the treatment of diabetes, epilepsy, cancer and chronic pain, The UWI Medicinal Cannabis Research Group (UWI-MCRG) is also contemplating the possibilities for its use in anaesthesia and psychiatry among other areas. Since 2010 The UWI’s Forensic Science programme under the leadership of Professor Wayne McLaughlin has diligently mapped the DNA of cannabis linking it to its origin to among other things, help identify key ganja growing areas on the island. These days, the data


UWI Pelican Issue 14