The social life of the cannabis plant dates back to more than ten millenia. Many studies have been written on this subject, but they tend to focus on the problematic aspects of use, which are suffered by a small percentage of the total number of users. The policies of prohibition have reinforced this negative bias, obstructing research into the mechanisms of action and therapeutic potential of cannabis. Amanda Feilding and the Beckley Foundation have worked for over sixteen years to change the status quo, initiating a global drug policy debate and developing innovative research.
We have established long-standing collaborations with leading research institutions to study cannabis’ complex biochemistry and its effect on the mind. In particular, the studies conducted with King’s College and University College London (UCL) help us better understand how different concentrations of the plant’s main cannabinoids interact in our body. The most abundant and researched one, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), has a history of therapeutic use (ex. antispasmodic, analgesic, appetite stimulant, etc.), but it is also responsible for the ‘stoning/high’ effects of the substance. Recent studies have also associated it with negative effects, such as acute psychotic-like effects, impaired concentration and memory. On the other hand, cannabidiol (CBD) has demonstrated potential to counter some of these drawbacks, having an opposite effect on regional brain function and highlighting its therapeutic properties.
These studies have raised concern in light of the latest data showing a growing prevalence of high-THC forms of cannabis in the UK’s illicit market. These varieties show high levels of THC (averaging 13-16%) and almost no CBD. Less prevalent forms (hash, non-intensive herbal cannabis) tend to have more balanced concentrations of both THC and CBD (~7-8%).
A study co-designed by Amanda Feilding and carried out by a team at UCL under the leadership of Prof Valerie Curran compared neural correlates of those two types of cannabis with placebo. The trial, which included other modules on cognition, appreciation of music and well-being, was funded by Channel 4, the Beckley Foundation and DrugScience.
The high-THC/low-CBD form of cannabis impaired connectivity in the brain’s salience network, which helps to focus different parts of the brain on important tasks. This network is thought to underpin the motivation to turn ideas into action and get things done. These changes may explain why people under the influence of this type of cannabis also performed worse in a test of motivation, even when offered financial incentives.
The results confirm the protective effects of CBD on the brain during acute administration and make a strong argument against the damaging policies of prohibition. In the words of Amanda Feilding: “The State should take care of its citizens in a way that minimises the harms and protects their health. And to put the supply and the production of cannabis into the illegal market does not do that. And we can see that from just the fact that the only cannabis [illegally] available to young people is ‘skunk’ cannabis, not a balanced variety (…) The Government must investigate what are other options to protect the young and patients in need”.