For decades, scientists have known about a pair of cannabis compounds that are safer and more effective than Aspirin. So why haven't you heard about them? Because cannabis prohibition has made researching those compounds almost impossible—until now.
The compounds are actually a pair of flavinoids, which are chemicals that give plants their color. The cannabis flavinoids that double as painkillers are Cannflavin A and Cannflavin Bm which have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, scientists believe that these compounds are 30 times more powerful Aspirin, and they don't have the health concerns often associated with long-term anti-inflammatory use.
"This is very typical of many natural products that have therapeutic value," Tariq Akhtar - an assistant professor at the University of Guelph's department of molecular and cellular biology - told the Toronto Star.
However, researchers haven't been able to make use of these flavinoids because the cost of extracting them is way too high.
"You can't just grow fields and fields of the plant and expect to get enough of the bioactive compound out of them, because they're in such low amounts and, since they’re complex chemicals, they’re hard to get at," Akhtar explained. "Extracting and purifying them is possible, but it’s not economically viable."
In other words, the average cannabis plant contains so little Cannflavin A and B that you could process tons of marijuana and reap only a trickle of these flavinoids. That means the cost of manufacturing these compounds into medicine would be so high, consumers couldn't afford it.
But that could change in the near future. Akhtar and his team have recently completed a research project that successfully identified the genes in cannabis that make Cannaflavin A and B. This breakthrough could enable researchers to produce large amounts of Cannaflavin A and B without needing literal tons of cannabis.
While it's too early to say if this new manufacturing process will work, Akhtar is hopeful that his discovery will help end the opioid epidemic by providing patients with a safer and more effective medication to treat chronic pain.
"What's interesting about the molecules in cannabis is that they actually stop inflammation at the source," Akhtar explained. "And most natural products don't have the toxicity that's associated with over-the-counter pain relief drugs, which, even though they're very effective, do come with health risks. So, looking at natural products as an alternative is a very attractive model."
And we have cannabis legalization to thank for it. Scientists have known about the huge medical potential of cannaflavis since the 1980s, but research was stalled by prohibition. If Canada hadn't legalized cannabis last year, Akhtar and his team would not have been able to achieve this breakthrough.
"We wouldn't have been able to do this if it wasn't for the climate right now in this country really pushing people like us to do this research."