The pioneer of cannabinoid research explores in a book why the West took 150 years to “rediscover” its therapeutic potential
“Sex took us to the drug.” This is how José Antonio Ramos Atance sums up how he became the pioneer of the study of marijuana compounds in Spain. Within the brain, the psychoactive substance of cannabis, THC, appeared to behave similarly to estradiol, a female sex hormone. The connection made sense, “the hormone works like a drug for men and males of other species,” Ramos reasons from his office at the Complutense University of Madrid.
In 1986 he founded the first scientific group in Spain specialized in the study of the so-called cannabinoids, the dozens of compounds contained in marijuana. Thirty years later, her department is already working on the development of cannabis-based drugs against childhood epilepsy or very aggressive brain tumors.
Ramos has just published Cannabis Stories (Catarata) , in which he gathers his memories as a scientist and wonders why they have had to spend more than 150 years for the West to rediscover the medical possibilities that this plant hides. The stigma associated with this drug has not helped much.
In 1999, Isidoro Álvarez, the late president of El Corte Inglés, went into a rage at the thought that he was hosting a congress of cannabis smokers in favor of its legalization, says Ramos. The anger went down the ladder to explode in the ears of Ramos, organizer of the meeting, just when he took the guests to the assembly hall of the Ramón Areces Foundation, of which Álvarez was director.
In fact, it was the first scientific congress held in Spain on cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, which produces substances homologous to those of cannabis in our brain to regulate key aspects such as memory, pain and behavior.
“This system was still unknown to most of the scientific community,” Ramos recalls, and for this reason the largest international experts on the subject were invited to “present their research in society”. Ramos tells that that morning the newspaper Abc had published an editorial entitled Do not Open the Pandora’s Box that criticized the meeting and that would have reached the eyes of the boss of the department stores. “As the word cannabinoid derives from cannabis, the sharp editorial committee of the Abc, or at least some of its members, had interpreted that the meeting was going to deal with this substance. They considered that what was going to be achieved with the meeting was to open a new front in the battle that was being developed for the legalization of cannabis use “, in addition to” lighting some joints “, recalls Ramos.
Marijuana for the queen
Separating research into the recreational use of marijuana has always been difficult. The man who brought cannabis to Europe as a medicine was called William Brooke O’Shaughanessy. In 1831 he was hired as a doctor of the East India Company, whose “initial objective was to give a glimpse of legality to the activity of the English corsairs of the Indian Ocean,” says Ramos. During his cohabitation with local doctors in India, O’Shaughanessy observed their use of marijuana preparations known as Bhang, Charas or Ganja. “The medicinal use of cannabis was very broad. It covered everything from the control of dandruff to the relief of headaches, manias, insomnia, venereal diseases, whooping cough, earaches and tuberculosis, “writes Ramos.
O’Shaughanessy was the first to experimentally demonstrate the physiological basis of some of these applications, first in animals and then in humans. The British doctor dissolved extracts of cannabis resin in ethanol and administered it to patients with tetanus, rheumatism, rabies, cholera and delirium tremens. The high concentration of THC in the first preparations caused some patients side effects, such as catalepsy or “uncontrolled behavior”. “After reducing the dose, pain relief, an increase in appetite and a mental state of joy were demonstrated,” says Ramos. It was also shown that cannabis tincture controlled seizures and spasms associated with rabies and tetanus.
“Between the medical class they had resonance the effects obtained in a baby of 40 days of age, to which the application of the tincture of cannabis made disappear the convulsions that had appeared after his birth”.
O’Shaughanessy returned to his country in 1841 and brought with him all that knowledge. Other doctors corroborated its usefulness, and recommended its use, including Queen Victoria’s personal physician. The therapeutic use of cannabis tincture spread rapidly throughout Europe and the USA as an analgesic, to facilitate delivery and also against cholera, among others.
“Despite all its positive effects,” says Ramos, “the use of cannabis was eliminated from the British pharmacopoeia in 1932. Ten years later it was removed from the United States and, somewhat later, from the Indian. The controversy that existed at the time about his hallucinogenic actions had eclipsed his possible medical uses. ” The arrival of injectable opioids, which were considered easier to use and more effective, also contributed.
‘Nevaditos’ at the university
At the beginning of the last decade, Ramos again encountered problems. He had created a free configuration subject aimed at physicians in which the biochemical fundamentals of cannabinoids and what was known about their neurological effects were explained. The class filled up very quickly, but especially of young people from other faculties who wanted to explore with drugs. The course was reconverted into an exchange of information in which the professor solved the doubts of the attendees about various substances and he in turn learned from them other uses beyond the classroom. “This is how the professor learned that the farlopa it was one of the names with which cocaine was known “or that” a nevadito was not a type of ice cream or an exquisite puff pastry, but smoked cocaine hydrochloride […] or a marijuana cigar mixed with cocaine, “he writes.
The professor became an expert in THC and its neurological effects and also in the therapeutic application of other compounds discovered later. He has also disclosed these issues in universities, patient associations and schools. He was also a member of the Regional Observatory on Drug Addiction of the Community of Madrid and collaborated with the National Plan on Drugs
The man who knows the most about cannabis in Spain says that he has never smoked a joint
It took almost a century for the West to dare again with the medical uses of marijuana. Its use has come in many cases driven by desperate parents who give their children cannabis oils, they do not respond to any known drug, but to some compound of marijuana. The most interesting cannabinoid in this field is not THC, but cannabidiol (CBD), which does not cause any psychoactive effect. The results were similar to those of that 40-day-old baby in the 19th century and have encouraged some pharmacists to embark on the rediscovery of marijuana compounds as drugs.
Spain is playing a leading role in this field, both in clinical trials against epilepsy in children and in research. The same department that Ramos founded in the 1980s now leads the use of cannabinoids to reduce the progression of brain gliomas and breast tumors , although it remains difficult. “There are still many obstacles in the medical research of these compounds,” he says.
In his book the professor confesses that, to questions of an assistant to one of his talks, he recognized that he has never smoked a joint. “How can you research cannabis if you have not even tried it?” They snapped. Ramos turned around wondering if HIV researchers should also follow that rule.