The plant genus Cannabis, with its most famous species Cannabis sativa has a long history of use for a remarkably diversity of applications. Apart from its so-called recreational (psycho-active) use as hashish or marijuana and its medical applications, the fast-growing hemp plant is used to produce paper, clothing, insulation, food and feed etc.
Earliest written records on its medical use data back to about 2000 BC when it was mentioned in a medicine book attributed to the Chinese emperor Shen-nung. Apparently, cannabis was used against many ailments, and also to ‘lighten one's body’. In Europe and North-America, medicinal cannabis was widely accepted and common until this began to decline around the beginning of the 1900s. However, since a few years there is renewed interest in medicinal cannabis, and one could say that last year this has really turned into a hype. For example, CBD oil, containing (predominantly) cannabidiol, from a scientific viewpoint indeed a very interesting non-hallucinogenic ‘phytocannabinoid’ has reached a true ‘snake oil’ (Dutch : Haarlemmerolie) status. CBD oil is now widely available in drugstores and cosmetics shops. On Internet one can also find CBD chocolate bars, CBD baby oils etc. Needless to say that this uncontrolled growth, and particularly the use by vulnerable patients is a worrying development. Often there is no quality check at all on these preparations and most consumers have no idea what is in their product. From a pharmacological point of view, Cannabis sativa (and C. indica) is considered a chemical treasure box with it’s over 100 biologically active substances. The number of plant variants, each having its own chemical fingerprint has exploded, and recently the first course to become ‘cannabis sommelier’ was announced. Not to become blown away and maintaining a sober perspective on cannabis science is the challenge of our own research. Next to studying CBD (and a little THC) we are mainly focusing on the so-called endo-cannabinoid system. In fact, it is a biological co-incidence (or perhaps a matter of co-evolution) that the compound that makes us feel high, THC or (-)-trans-Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol, acts on one of the most common receptors in our brain. Following its discovery in the early 90’s of the past century this structure on cell membranes obtained the name cannabinoid receptor. Together with another (or more) receptor it forms the center of a fascinating biological system involved in energy metabolism, eating behaviour and many other processes. Using fatty acids as building blocks, organisms synthesize an orchestra of compounds that modulate this endocannabinoid system. From an evolutionary perspective it seemed strange that Cannabis would be the only plant fooling this endocannabinoid system. Indeed, recent studies show that this is not the case. Taken together, working on Cannabis and endocannabinoids is a mind-blowing experience for scientists of many different disciplines.