“This year we will open up and regulate the commercial use of hemp products, providing opportunities for small-scale farmers; and formulate policy on the use of cannabis products for medicinal purposes, to build this industry in line with global trends. The regulatory steps will soon be announced by the relevant ministers”.

This is one of a number of initiatives – highlighted in the South African State of the Nation Address (SONA) (February 2020) by President Cyril Ramaphosa – to be undertaken by government in an effort to stimulate the country’s sluggish economy.

Hemp products, cannabis products, marijuana – what is the difference?

The word cannabis is derived from the plant species with the botanical name Cannabis sativa L. Over time growers have been selectively breeding a variety of cannabis strains (cultivars) in order to produce different end products from the cannabis plant.

Industrial hemp plants were bred for their fiber, found in the stalks of the plant. Hemp plants are taller and skinnier than the marijuana variety. Hemp is claimed to be the strongest natural fiber in the world and is used to make textiles (e.g. clothing, rope, carpeting); paper; foods (e.g. hemp seed oil, hemp protein powder); building materials (e.g. oil paints, solvents, insulation); and body care items (e.g. soaps, lotions, balms). Hemp is typically grown outdoors and this variety of cannabis is grown to maximise the size and yield of the plants.

Marijuana plants were bred for the compounds found in the cannabis flowers of female plants. Marijuana plants are shorter and bushier than the typical hemp plants. While marijuana is widely known for its recreational use, it also shows potential in a variety of therapeutic applications. Marijuana plants are usually grown in controlled environments to optimize the yield and abundance of budding flowers.

Tiny glands, called trichomes, on the flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant produce an oily substance that is the source of its psychoactive and medicinal properties. This oily substance contains two families of chemicals that are relevant to recreational and therapeutic applications: cannabinoids, and terpenoids.

Cannabis contains more than 100 cannabinoids, of which two are currently of medical interest: delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD).

THC is the powerful psychoactive agent that induces the mind-altering and euphoric effects of being on a “high”. CBD is the health-related compound in cannabis that is not psychoactive and does not cause the intoxicating effects of THC.

Terpenoids provide the distinctive aroma and taste of the cannabis plant.

Both hemp and marijuana can contain high amounts of CBD, the non-intoxicating compound in cannabis. In the USA, in accordance with legislation, hemp’s THC content must be less than 0,3%. Cannabis plants are regarded as marijuana when the THC content is more than 0,3%. Some species of marijuana plants can contain up to 30% THC.

Effects of cannabis on the mind and body

Cannabis compounds affect the biochemistry in the body in various ways. Upon entering the brain, THC attaches to and stimulates cannabinoid receptors, which are proteins on the surface of brain cells. The cannabinoid receptors form part of a chemical signaling system in the body, called the endocannabinoid system. The body makes its own endogenous neurotransmitters, called endocannabinoids and their receptors are found throughout the brain and the body.

The actions of endocannabinoids play an important role in the harmonious functioning of the body’s organs and systems. In the central nervous system, it helps to regulate brain functions such as memory, learning, pain perception, mood, movement, the senses, coordination and very importantly in the cannabis context, pleasure. According to Harvard Medical School there are also endocannabinoid receptors in the gastrointestinal tract, the immune system, the cardiovascular system, endocrine glands, liver, urinary tract and reproductive organs. Endocannabinoids also interact with other receptor systems, such as the serotonin receptors that form part of the brain system that regulates mood.

Plant-derived cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are called phytocannabinoids and is perceived in the body as similar to the endocannabinoids produced by the body. As such, THC binds easily to cannabinoid receptors and for example, changes the flow of neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers between brain cells. These neurochemical changes cause the short- and long-term effects of THC on the mind. THC also reaches the same pleasure centers in the brain that are affected by alcohol, cocaine and heroin. Phytocannabinoids are able to interact with the body’s control circuits that regulate processes such as the immune system, stress, sleep, metabolism, appetite, reproduction and energy balance.

Health benefits of medical cannabis.

Medical cannabis can consist of a combination of THC and CBD, or just CBD, and is viewed with either skepticism or as a wonder treatment, depending on who you talk to. But what are the scientific facts about medical cannabis?

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the USA has tasked a committee of experts to review about 10 000 studies, conducted over the past two decades, into the effectiveness of medical cannabis. The committee evaluated the strength of the evidence from these studies, which covered nearly two dozen health conditions, and published their findings in a report in 2017.

It should be kept in mind that the findings reflect evidence from studies evaluated against norms for scientific research, and many studies may have been unable to meet these norms, for example, small studies. Harvard cautions that the absence of strong evidence doesn’t mean medical cannabis is ineffective, it just means we don’t know at this point in time.

According to Harvard, the National Academies report indicated conclusive and substantial evidence that medical cannabis has proved to be an effective treatment for the following conditions:

• Chronic pain, from causes such as cancer, arthritis, nerve damage, multiple sclerosis (MS), headaches, and musculoskeletal conditions of the neck, shoulders and back.

• Chemotherapy induced nausea and vomiting.

• Patient-reported multiple sclerosis (MS) spasticity symptoms.

This report also indicated moderate to limited evidence of the effectiveness of medical cannabis for the following conditions:

• Disturbed sleep that is associated with conditions such as sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, chronic pain or MS.

• Appetite or weight loss from HIV/AIDS.

• Tourette syndrome.

• A reduction in death and disability after a traumatic brain injury or brain hemorrhage.

• Posttraumatic stress disorder.

• Social anxiety.

As far as other health conditions are concerned, the National Academies review found limited or insufficient evidence of the effectiveness of medical cannabis.

Since this report was published, a purified liquid CBD product called Epidiolex was approved in 2018 in the USA for the treatment of two forms of severe childhood epilepsy.

In a recent study on mice, the researchers have discovered that one of the components contained in cannabis can wipe out antibiotic resistant bacteria such as the superbug Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The study tested the antibacterial activity of 18 cannabis components, including THC and CBD. They found that a non-psychoactive element called cannabigerol (CBG) showed promising results and further studies were conducted. This compound was found to work as well as a powerful antibiotic when treating mice infected with MRSA. This research shows potential for further studies in this regard.

The ability of THC and CBD to easily connect and interact with systems in the body, offers the potential to be used as a treatment option for a variety of health conditions. Some research has been done in this regard, many of them preliminary laboratory and animal studies. Research into medical cannabis is ongoing, and it may yet prove to be a wonder treatment for a variety of medical conditions.


Medical marijuana: Facts about cannabis, THC, and CBD. Report published 2020 by Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. (www.health.harvard.edu)

Hemp vs marijuana: The difference explained. Published 11 September 2018. CBD Origin. (www.medium.com)

Hemp vs marijuana: Is there a difference? Published 2 September 2019. Analytical Cannabis. (www.analyticalcannabis.com)

Medical marijuana. Published 21 June 2016. Healthline. (www.healthline.com)

Marijuana: Effects of weed on brain and body. Published 7 June 2017. Live Science. (www.livescience.com)

What is medical marijuana? Published online and revised July 2019. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (USA). (www.drugabuse.gov)

Uncovering the hidden antibiotic potential of cannabis. Study published 4 February 2020. ACS Publications. (www.pubs.acs.org)

Study reveals antibiotic potential of cannabis. Published 2 March 2020. Nutra Ingredients. (www.nutraingredients.com)


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