Dr. Michele Ross founded the IMPACT (Improving Marijuana Policy & Accelerating Cannabinoid Therapeutics) Network, a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing clinical cannabis research and educating patients, healthcare professionals and policymakers about the medical benefits of cannabis. Armed with a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dr. Ross is also the author of “Vitamin Weed: a 4-Step Plan to Prevent and Reverse Endocannabinoid Deficiency,” which teaches people how to boost their endocannabinoid system naturally with dietary phytocannabinoids.
I first started learning about cannabis as a graduate student working on my neuroscience Ph.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. So I started to learn about cannabis and the endocannabinoid system through my studies in pharmacology but there really wasn’t too much on it. I was a NIDA (National Institute of Drug Abuse) funded researcher. NIDA sponsored my lab and our research which was the study of the harmful effects of drugs of abuse on the brain. These drugs included cocaine, meth, Adderall, and anti-depressants. We also studied cannabinoids like THC, and de-synthetic cannabinoids. One of the things we did was look at all the research at the time, which was in 2006. We wanted to figure out what cannabinoids do to the brain assuming that they cause harm due to them being a Schedule 1 drug. We actually reviewed the literature and, based on our own findings, we actually found that cannabis and cannabinoids actually grew brain cells, which was a little controversial back in the day. That was the very first paper I published. It was interesting to step back and know that this was contrary to everything I had learned. I started to dig a little deeper and to try and understand what an endocannabinoid system was and finding out it’s basically on every neuron.
I was actually really reluctant to ever try cannabis. One reason being I was a Ph.D. student in Dallas, Texas, which is an illegal state and so cannabis is not easy to come by. Due to the nature of my work, if anyone ever found me smoking a joint, I could lose my job permanently and never be able to do drug research again. Based on the contextual environment there, I never went down that path.
But when I moved to California and started doing research at Cal-Tech it was a different environment. Personally I was still reluctant to do it there because I have a family history of mental illness – bipolar and schizophrenia runs in my family. Cannabis doesn’t cause schizophrenia but it can bump up the initiation or onset by a couple of years if you have the genetics for it. So I waited until after that window when mental illness kicks in to try it in my late 20s. But I was still scared, it’s a little bit of a roll of a dice when you have that genetic and family background. (Editor’s Note: Ross decided to use cannabis as a result of a medical issue that presented in her late 20s.)
I had a really weird type of palsy in my hand. I woke up overnight and my hand just stopped working. It was cramped and painful and it didn’t go back to normal for three months. And they were trying to put me on all these drugs but nothing was really helping. I went through all the pharmaceutical options first. I tried everything. I was facing a $25,000 surgery, they were going to cut nerves in my neck and arm and they weren’t even really sure it would work.
Rather than have a surgery where they were going to cut on my nerves and really having no reason for this happening in the first place, I turned to alternative medicine. I tried vitamins, herbal medicine, acupuncture, I even tried electro-acupuncture to try to wake up my nerves. Than it turned out that using a regimen of cannabis and massage woke up my nerves. Even to this day, if I stop taking the cannabis for a month, my arm is pretty much useless. I have now been diagnosed with neuropathy and fibromyalgia.
When I would talk to doctors it was appalling how little they knew about CBD and THC, even here in Colorado. You talk to
doctors and 99 percent of them don’t even know what a CBD is and you have to tell them it’s that thing that helps
seizures, and I would ask them: Haven’t you watched CNN’s “Weed”? They don’t know anything. I had actually written a
previous book, “Train Your Brain to Get Thin: Prime Your Gray Cells for Weight Loss, Wellness, and Exercise,” which was
published in 2012 and was basically a manual using neuroscience to teach people about how to overcome cravings, to sort
of create this lifestyle shift to ensure weight loss, and a healthy lifestyle would be maintained and you wouldn’t be in
a yo-yo diet situation. So applying that same sort of reasoning to cannabis, I noticed that a lot of patients,
especially out in California, thought you could smoke a joint and be cured of cancer or smoke a joint and their diabetes
would be gone. People didn’t really understand that sometimes when you are really sick, it takes a lot of holistic
healing and a complete lifestyle change to go from totally chronically ill to well.
Cannabis has many beneficial properties, but if you are really sick and you have a bad diet and you are stressed out all the time and you are taking medications that harm your endocannabinoid system, there’s really no way you can actually benefit from cannabis. We have seen non-responders who take cannabis oil and it doesn’t do anything for them. The endocannabinoid system is set up to initiate self-healing. I really equate it to people whose endocannabinoid systems are so broken they couldn’t be receptive to cannabis. Some people are just really, really unhealthy and their fat cells are so unhealthy that when they try to burn fat, exercise or diet their fat cells can‘t even shuttle the fat out of their system for them to lose weight. There are people who are just so unhealthy that they will go exercise and the fat gets stuck and just goes back in the fat cells and makes them more hungry. So, in this way, it really enables and is empowering healthcare providers and patients to really understand their bodies and how their endocannabinoid system works and understand there has to be a commitment to change. It’s just like any other lifestyle change, when people commit more and give more time to understand how to lose weight and understand how to use cannabis and come off pharmaceutical drugs it will be more successful. People think you just take this oil and everything will be okay. It’s just not like that. There was no real how-to guide that guides both the patient and the healthcare provider and holds their hands and walks them through it.
When you look at other things that they do teach in medical schools, it seems like the systems they can prescribe drugs on are the ones that they cover. So they cover the dopamine system, they cover the serotonin system because there are drug targets for that and you can prescribe drugs for that. Up until this point, the only drug you could prescribe for the endocannabinoid system was Marinol and that was only used for oncology patients. If there were no pharmaceuticals you could prescribe for, it wasn’t really involved in the conversation because it’s a Schedule 1 drug. If you look at LSD, do we talk about LSD in medical school? No, it’s on the list of things you are supposed to tell patients to avoid cause they are harmful drugs. We don’t cover Ecstasy or have lectures on cocaine, and it’s a lower schedule than marijuana. So really when the conversation is about cannabis it’s just as a drug to avoid, we don’t talk about the endocannabinoid system even though it regulates every other neurotransmitter in the body.
It’s very confusing from that standpoint and it’s much harder to add curriculum to medical schools than it is to offer continuing medical education. If you look at the fact that the endocannabinoid system is really missing from the curriculum, you also realize there are a lot of other things missing from the medical school curriculum, for example, nutrition. We know now that a lot of different diseases can be caused by vitamin deficiency. For instance, Vitamin D deficiency, 90 percent of us are Vitamin D deficient and it can cause a whole long list of problems, including cancer. So you would think we need to tell doctors to test for Vitamin D levels and have that be a part of medical school curriculum. But we don’t. We don’t talk about vitamins or nutrition. If it’s not based in pharmaceutical medications, we don’t talk about it. So the omission of the endocannabinoid system isn’t the only glaring thing missing from medical school curriculum. I just think MD curriculum is really outdated and not serving patients. It’s also not serving the doctors because they could be armed with better tools to diagnose and treat their patients.
Considering the fact that doctors still can’t even recommend cannabis to their patients without being in violation of federal law and it being Schedule 1 and them possibly even losing their malpractice insurance, I think until it gets rescheduled, there’s really not going to be a push to put it in the curriculum. What’s the incentive for a medical school to add that? They already have a limited amount of time to cover things. Everyone is just left to this weird self-education role which is not really ideal whatsoever. You also don’t have that many endocannabinoid experts in this country to help them develop curriculum or to help teach at each of these schools. It’s been such a taboo field for so long that there just aren’t people who have committed their entire careers to studying it in each of these states. So it’s really a hard process to try to institute into the curriculum across the nation. We have been trying to talk to universities about implementing it but their whole thing is they have drug-free policies but endocannabinoid systems are not a drug, it’s a neurotransmitter system. But you still get that same tone from them ‘that the only reason we would need to know about it is because it’s a drug.’ But, no, it actually regulates all of the other systems.
I actually have talked to a lot of doctors who run the old-guard organizations and societies and they have said nothing is basically going to change until old-school doctors and physicians running these medical schools and healthcare organizations die. They are not going to change their view that cannabis is a harmful drug and that we shouldn’t be enabling doctors to learn about it so they can go make their patients drug addicts. But ironically it’s okay for doctors to push opiates. It doesn’t make any sense and it is terribly frustrating as an intelligent person and a researcher to see all this. They also have to deal with backlash from donors. You have very conservative donors, donating millions to these universities they are afraid if they start changing curriculum it will make the news that they are teaching about the endocannabinoid system. So it becomes this political game instead of education or what it should be about.
At first I was hopeful. Because this week (April 19-21, 2016) at the United Nations they are having a meeting called UNGASS, which is a special session of the United Nations General Assembly on the world drug problem, and international leaders were supposed to set a new policy for dealing with different drugs of abuse and the international treaty that keeps cannabis, for example, as a Schedule 1 drug. There was some talk that cannabis may be taken off that Schedule 1 list or dropped down a notch or two. It turns out the powers-that-be are not going to do that, and the DEA seems to follow whatever the international treaty is. So basically what they were saying is it doesn’t matter what Americans want or international leaders want, if the international treaty says that cannabis is a Schedule 1 drug, they are not going to change our American policy because they have to comply with the international treaty. So if it doesn’t change, we will find out very soon what the official announcement is, but word on the street is that nothing is changing about cannabis. It’s unfortunate, but I do see that happening.
Even when the rest of the world adopts something, we don’t always fall in line, we are usually the last country to do it. Not only are we not early adopters, we are not adopters at all. We are non-conformists, we are like: Let’s not pay women, we are still on the English system as opposed to the metric system. If the whole world adopted these changes, or legalized cannabis, I am pretty sure the U.S. would be like we’re not going to do it. It’s very frustrating because top policymakers are saying this is going to make sense, but it just takes one or two people at the top to say ‘no.’ The DEA has been presented evidence over and over again by top experts about cannabis’ medical benefits. Even judges presiding over some of these hearings believe there is enough evidence to realize there are medical benefits and it should be a Schedule 1 drug. But then again, the DEA doesn’t have to listen to the hearings or the judge, the DEA is like its own power unless a President changes it, or the Senate and the House changes it.
Cannabis surprises me every day. I think it’s the power of the raw cannabinoids which we are just learning about that has surprised me most. I think my favorite fact is that the raw version of CBD or cannabidiol is called CBD-A and that cannabinoid actually works as a COX-2 inhibitor. COX-2 is an enzyme that causes inflammation and pain so if you inhibit it, you inhibit pain and inflammation when you actually have prescription drugs on the market that work as COX-2 inhibitors like Celebrex, etc. These drugs have actually been tested in clinical trials to both treat and prevent different types of cancer, like colon and breast cancer, so the possibility that this raw cannabinoid CBD-A can actually treat and prevent cancer is amazing. I just find it so empowering that in the future we are going to be to able to prevent cancer in people who we know are at high risk for it with some of these cannabinoids. CBD-A and CGA are just two raw cannabinoids that we know of but there’s a whole bunch of them. I think there is so much promise for each of them. Every time we learn of a new cannabinoid, we find out this one works for bone healing, this one helps with menopause – it’s just like being a kid in a candy store. To me it’s fascinating, we have never had a class of drugs before that almost every single one has not only one, but multiple medicinal benefits. I feel like we could be researching the benefits of these cannabinoids for decades and still not even know everything about them.