The Critical Need for Medical Cannabis Research and Education

Academic programs such as the undergraduate specialization in Medical Cannabis Studies at the Yezreel Valley College, are needed for advancement and support of the developing medical cannabis industry

Lab research

We lack science-based information about the cannabis plant and its medical effects. Cannabis has a long history of human use, with evidence of its cultivation and utilization dating back thousands of years. Its role varied depending on time and place, with uses ranging from medicinal and recreational, fiber production and for religious rituals. Archeological evidence suggest use of fiber-type cannabis for rope production as early as 26,000 BC, and medical use in Egypt 5000 years ago. Despite the extensive use by humanity of cannabis for medical purposes since ancient times, the scientific information available to us about this plant is very limited due to legal restrictions during the last decades.

Research in medical cannabis, almost completely ceased in the early 1960s, due to the acceptance of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1961, by most countries. Consequently, scientists and physicians were unable to study cannabis using modern techniques that have developed since the 60's. This has resulted in a significant gap between the overwhelming desire today to use cannabis for medical purposes, and the lack of scientific and medical knowledge to make this usage effective, reliable and safe. The mission of the scientific and academic research community must be to close this knowledge gap through intense and systematic study and training.

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A regulatory revolution 

Recent changes in regulation in Israel, which was the first country in the world to create a legal framework for research in line with the International Convention of 1961, have enabled the beginning of intense scientific research and development into all aspects of cultivation, medical usages, and related technologies. This research strives to develop optimal, modernized, agro-hightech cultivation techniques for production of crops suitable for the developing cannabis pharma; to identify specific chemical profiles to target particular medical conditions; to develop effective drug delivery methods, and more. Recently, medical cannabis has emerged as a promising treatment for an increasing number of medical conditions. While the list of accepted diseases and conditions for cannabis treatment is currently under extensive assessment, there is significant evidence supporting the efficacy of cannabis for the treatment of epilepsy, chronic pain, neurodegenerative diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and more.

Dr. Nirit Bernstein
Dr. Nirit Bernstein

The challenge of the scientific and academic community with regard to medical cannabis is to initiate intense research, while simultaneously teaching the next generation of researchers and developers about what is presently known even if present knowledge is limited, pinpointing knowledge gaps. The first step in training the next generation of researchers are academic courses on the subject of medical cannabis, such as the course I teach at The Hebrew University Faculty of Agriculture on the subject of "Development of Cannabis as a medicinal plant for modern medicine", and a course on the topic of "Plant biology, botany and chemistry of medical cannabis" at the Yezreel Valley College, which established this year an undergraduate specialization in Medical Cannabis Studies.

Knowledge is needed about effects of the growing conditions of the plants on medically relevant compounds in cannabis. The research concentrates on developing advances in cannabis plant-science and agronomy, and creating precision agricultural protocols for optimal, modernized, agro-hightech cultivation for production of crops suitable for the developing cannabis pharma, and some breakthroughs were achieved.

Applying modern research techniques for the study of cannabis can lead to an explosion of knowledge that will make cannabis a viable medical option. The meeting between a subject about which so little is presently known, with modern research techniques and understanding, can lead to a massive amount of new knowledge quickly.

Without a doubt, we are entering an exciting new age of teaching and research about medical cannabis that will lead to a deeper understanding of the plant and its medical effects, creating innovative, hopefully revolutionary medical solutions.

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* The writer is a senior researcher, and department head at Volcani Center, Israel; and a member of the teaching staff at the Yezreel Valley College, at the 'Medical Cannabis Studies' specialization undergraduate program. Dr. Bernstein's research focus on development of high-grade medical cannabis cultivation, and cannabis physiology.