The Straight Dope on Cannabis-Inspired Meds

While the medical marijuana debate rages on, drug companies race to leverage the power of pot

Last spring Canada became the first and only country to approve a drug called Sativex to treat the chronic pain endured by most of the 2.5 million people with multiple sclerosis. The announcement caused, ahem, quite a buzz. Sativex is a whole-plant extract of high-grade Cannabis sativa, a.k.a. marijuana, and is the first prescription drug to contain all 60-plus of the plant's cannabinoids, those compounds that include the psychoactive chemical THC. Although the drug packs a pain-numbing punch, its mouth-spray formulation slows its release into the body, thus diminishing those consciousness-altering side effects associated with smoking marijuana.

Despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June to uphold the ban on medical marijuana, drug companies are not discouraged. In fact, Sativex is just one of nearly two dozen new pharmaceutical compounds inspired by the herb. Last year the Society for Neuroscience conference featured almost 200 papers on cannabinoids; a decade ago there were exactly zero. And 22 pharmaceutical companies, including giants Pfizer and GlaxoSmith-Kline, helped fund last year's meeting of the International Cannabinoid Research Society.
In 1992 not a single drug company attended, according to executive director Richard Musty. "Now," he says, "they're showing up and madly taking notes."

The newfound interest stems from a flurry of discoveries in the early 1990s that showed that the body is littered with cannabinoid receptors. In fact, we have more of them in the brain than most other types, which may explain why
they regulate such a vast array of functions--appetite, pain, memory, mood. Luckily for us, such multitasking paves the way for drugs to treat everything from obesity and migraines to cancer and Parkinson's disease. Below, a small sampling of the goods.

The Drugs The Promise How It Works Status The Upshot
Sativex GW Pharmaceuticals Relieves the severe nerve pain experienced by some 80 percent of people with multiple sclerosis Think liquid pot. Once spritzed under the tongue, the drug is slowly ferried to pain-blocking cannabinoid receptors in the brain Approval in Canada is based on a four-week trial in the U.K.; U.S. trials are slated to begin by the end of the year Sativex is less addictive than other painkillers. Trouble is, it works best in conjunction with them
Acomplia Sanofi-Aventis Lowers triglycerides, raises HDL ("good" cholesterol), and improves insulin resistance in obese and overweight patients Tames appetite by blocking cannabinoid receptors in the brain and in some fat cells, which helps the body to better metabolize sugar This April, Sanofi-Aventis filed for approval in both the U.S. and Europe. Acomplia could be ready by 2006 A true breakthrough. It´s the first drug to treat factors that lead to heart disease by targeting the body´s cannabinoid system
Cannabinor Pharmos Corporation Relieves acute postoperative pain without the serious side effects associated with heavy-duty opiates such as morphine Currently injected intravenously, it stimulates cannabinoid receptors in the immune system that help reduce inflammation Safety trials in Europe are slated for this year. Pharmos hopes to develop an oral dose by the drug´s release date in 2008 Cannabinor would be the first drug to treat post-op pain by targeting the cannabinoid system, but so far it has been tested in just 12 animal studies