Your brain on anti-matter. Positron/gamma ray images of cannabinoid receptors in the human brain.

Those interested in medical cannabis will remember that the CB1 receptors, discovered less than 20 years ago, are activated by THC and other cannabinoids in cannabis. This activation provides the psychoactive effects of cannabis and also some of its other health enhancing properties. CB receptors also respond to endocannabinoids produced by own bodies, primarily in our nerve cells. The receptors are part of the endocannabinoid receptor (or regulatory) system, now seen as a major physiological system, with important roles in pain relief, neuroprotection and anti-inflammation, even digestion and vision.

Such CB1 activation by THC from the plant world or anandamide from our own cells, along with other cannabinoids produced by the cannabis plant or our own bodies, can provide profound health benefits. Cannabinoids also work by activating CB2 receptors (primarily found on immune cells). Independent of their actions on receptors, cannabinoids are anti-oxidants, protecting nerve cells and other tissue from oxidation stress.

In the photo below, the CB1 receptors are being marked by the inverse agonist, 18F]MK-9470, a positron emission tomography (PET) tracer for in vivo human PET brain imaging of the cannabinoid-1 receptor. Inverse agonists tend to cause receptors to respond in ways opposite their response to agonists such as THC and anandamide. In the case of cannabinoid receptors, hope that inverse agonists might serve as obesity control agents has faded with problems from nausea and mood disturbances.

The physics of what goes on during such as PET scan it astounding. The process would appear to be highly hazardous to health, yet the procedure is commonplace and apparently without risk. Markers with affinities for certain cell types, such as the compounds used above, MK-9470, emit anti-matter. A positron is the anti-matter equivalent of an electron. When it is emitted from the source, in this case on a CB1 receptor in the brain, it travels only a short distance, a millimeter or so, before encountering its matter equivalent, an electron.

When matter electron and antimatter positron meet, the result is annihilation. Such an encounter releases a short burst of highly energetic photons in the form of gamma rays. Why matter/antimatter annihilation with accompanying gamma ray burst inside the brain is not fatal is not exactly clear. Perhaps a high-energy physicist could comment. Or even a low-energy physicist after coffee.

During this positron emission tomography, sensors detect where the gamma rays are coming from and map these in a 3D representation of brain anatomy and activity.  In the images above the patterns of gamma rays being emitted from this matter/antimatter annihilation show the relative distributions of CB1 receptors in various parts of the human brain. See the original research for more detail. Although they are most highly concentrated in the brain, CB1 receptors are also found throughout the entire human body, mainly on nerve cell membranes.

Cannabinoids 1988 – The Day the DEA told the truth

With 2008 just behind us, this post looks back not across last year, but farther back, 20 years. 1988 witnessed a remarkable event. On September 6 of that year the federal bureaucracy, the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the truth. This may be the only case of veracity by the DEA during its meteoric 35 year history.

The uncharacteristic truthfulness from the DEA came from one of its own administrative law judges, Francis L. Young, in his report and recommendations to the agency on the prospect of reducing cannabis’ Schedule 1 status.  Such extreme status supports governmental torments inflicted upon Americans nearly equal to the tortures of the Inquisition for mere possession of plant material used by humans over the last 12,000 years. Instead of tools of physical torture, the new Drug War brought torments such as the family and soul-killing horrors of mandatory minimum sentences and asset forfeitures.

Zero-tolerance zealotry inflamed Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush, along with authoritarian senators, such Joe Biden and John Ashcroft, and Torquemada-like prosecutors such as Eric Holder and Rudy Giuliani in the 1980s. Their ire was written into harsh new drug laws and sentencing scheduling. New legislation began allowing drug war bureaucrats to make war against a sub-set of Americans

  • These laws allowed the DEA and even local police to take Americans’ property away from them and give it, in part, to police agencies.
  • The same laws encouraged police to take Americans’ liberty away from them and give it to the mushrooming prison/industrial complex.

Cannabis sativa, of all drugs, was the center of this ever-growing drug war. Crack cocaine got the headlines, but as always, marijuana users suffered the most arrests. “Just say no” campaigns and DARE programs, along with beer and cigarette company planned and financed drug-free America campaign, institutionalized lying about cannabis. This drug has none of the violence promotion of alcohol, or the addictiveness or lethality of cigarettes, and even then showed strong medical utility. Nonetheless, it was denounced by the DEA and essentially the entire US government, as without medical value and dangerously addictive, fully supportive of its harsh schedule 1 status.

Into this maelstrom came a voice of calm from DEA law judge Francis L. Young. His investigation into the correctness of Schedule 1 for cannabis resulted in a set of talking points remarkable in their clarity and a direct challenge to the plant’s draconian rating:

  • The evidence in this record clearly shows that marijuana has been accepted as capable of relieving the distress of great numbers of very ill people, and doing so with safety under medical supervision.
  • Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects. But marijuana is not such a substance. There is no record in the extensive medical literature describing a proven, documented cannabis-induced fatality.
  • Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within a supervised routine of medical care.
  • It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance in light of the evidence in this record.

Such findings caused Judge Young to reject the agency’s claim for Schedule 1 status for cannabis. What was the result of truth being told to power? Essentially nothing.

The DEA continued, of course, to be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious and stubbornly clung to the draconian scheduling of cannabis that accounted for (and still accounts for) so much that agency’s total activity. Like any bureaucracy, the DEA is protective of its turf, and persecuting cannabis makes up huge portion of the agency’s reason for existing.

Since Judge Young’s honest but futile ruling, over 10 million Americans have suffered arrest and the resulting damage to their lives and families for possession of a relatively harmless and medically beneficial plant substance.

Californians voted in 1996 to exempt medical cannabis users from prosecution. Clinton administration drug warrior Rahm Emanuel participated in the attempted persecution of physicians who might advise patient’s of cannabis medical benefit. Emanuel actually said “We’re against the message that the initiative sends to children.” Apparently young people might be damaged by being made aware of the medical benefits of a plant? Attempts by Emanuel and the Clinton administration at muting physicians suffered defeat at the hands of the US Supreme Court when such heavy-handedness was declared as a violation of free speech.

During the ensuing 20 years since Judge Young’s refreshing candor, essentially nothing has changed at the federal level. During this time, the discovery of the endocannabinoid receptor system has redefined our understanding of the workings of the human body. Cannabis remains as Schedule 1, despite 20 years of research, performed mostly outside the USA, showing huge medical value as an anti-inflammatory, neuro-protectant and pain relievers. Instead, over 800,000 Americans suffer arrests each year, more than one cannabis arrest each minute. Although these mass arrests seem to have no effect on use of cannabis, it does serve as a colossal jobs program for urine testers, snitches, cops, DEA agents, drug counselors and jailers.

After 20 years since Judge Young told the truth, many Americans hoped the election of Barack Obama might signal a new direction. Perhaps the drug war might be reconsidered by better minds? Perhaps the incarcerated nation with over 2 million of its citizens behind bars might be reexamined/ Perhaps decades of lies and tens of millions of arrests for possession of a beneficial plant might end? But now things do not look hopeful. Barack Obama, for some reason, has placed in key positions, including Attorney General, the worst of the drug war zealots of the Clinton administration. Probably none of them have heard of the DEA law judge and his findings of the relative harmlessness of cannabis and the great injustice in demonizing the plant in draconian legal code as Schedule 1. Nor would they care. After all, it sends the wrong message to children.